Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

[END]

Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.

[END]

What the Fall of Ramadi and Palmyra Means: ISIS On The Rampage

CounterPunch

The capture of Ramadi in central Iraq on 18 May by the Sunni-dominated fundamentalist group Islamic State, and only three days later the fall of the ancient city of Palmyra in the heart of Syria, have shocked Arab and Western governments alike. Taking control of Ramadi and Palmyra, cities more than 400 miles apart, and in different countries, so quickly is no mean feat.

Subsequent reports indicated that the Syrian government’s last border crossing between Iraq and Syria had also fallen to Islamic State forces, giving them control of the entire border between the two countries. This frightening new reality means that the frontier is now open to Islamic State, who can move from one country to the other at will.

The radical Islamic militia continues its murderous campaign elsewhere, too. It claimed that one of its suicide bombers blew up a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia’s eastern town of Qadeeh, killing and wounding scores of people.

Events like these belie claims of success in recent military operations by the United States and allies against the Islamic State’s command structure and fighters on the ground. America’s strategy, often repeated, has been to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, just as Washington’s aim was to deal with al-Qaida. That strategy continues to be in a state of failure, because Washington is unable to prevent the phenomenon of one extremist organisation morphing into several splinter groups which are far more dangerous.

The causes of Islamic State’s growth are multifaceted. So is the significance of its dramatic advances in the battlefield. Ramadi in Anbar province, barely 70 miles from the capital Baghdad, was where the American-sponsored “Sons of Iraq” (Sahwa) militia started in order to counter al-Qaida nearly a decade ago. Born out of expediency, that alliance was forged between the US occupation forces and members of the overthrown Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussain and Sunni tribes.

Now that Iraq is under Shia rule, the alienation among Sunnis is strong for two main reasons. The sense of loss of identity, depersonalisation and lack of opportunities, and the perception of abandonment by the United States, add fuel to the fires burning in the region. Both in Iraq and Syria, government authority is absent in vast areas, leaving a dangerous vacuum. The void is filled by fanatics who have sectarian zeal, appetite to settle matters by violence and weapons in abundance.

A strategy whose objectives are mixed up, and which is based on sheer opportunism, lacks consistency and is likely to fail. In Iraq, Saddam Hussain, leading a Sunni minority and secular dictatorship, was deposed. Saddam’s overthrow released soldiers of his Ba’athist army and alienated Iraq’s Sunni tribes. But then, many of the same were enticed by the United States with money and weapons to fight al-Qaida. With that phase over and a Shia-dominated regime in Baghdad, the Sunnis were out of favour again. They turned from allies to enemies.

The nature of war between government forces and Islamic State in Iraq is full of irony. The Iraqi military is heavily equipped with American weapons and is supposedly well trained, but clearly lacks the will to fight. IS forces, too, have plenty of weapons, originally supplied by Washington to the “Sons of Iraq” militia to fight al-Qaida, or captured from the Iraqi military.

The US strategy in Syria has been to overthrow the Assad regime and thus eliminate an old rejectionist challenge to American–Israeli supremacy in the Middle East. Again, expediency drove the United States and anti-Assad forces closer. Western arms supplied to anti-Assad groups that are described as “moderate” have often been seized by more fanatical and trigger-happy groups like Islamic State.

Events in recent years have demonstrated again and again that alliances with extremist groups to destabilise countries tend to produce a boomerang effect. From Libya to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the effects have been devastating. The region is destabilised. Human misery is indescribable. External powers are eager to intervene when it is least helpful and display withdrawal symptoms when the going gets tough or it does not suit them.

Accounts of the fall of Palmyra, site of two-thousand-year-old Roman-era ruins and artefacts, speak of large-scale evacuation of nearby communities by Syrian troops as they withdrew. There was no intervention by US aircraft which have been deployed in recent months to target Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Residents left behind face atrocities from IS militants.

North of Palmyra lie oil and gas fields under Syrian government control. Does the US goal to depose President Assad in Syria explain why American air power did not intervene in the battle for Palmyra, and may not do so in the battle for the oil fields nearby? After all, the loss of those oil fields would be a big setback against the Syrian regime whereas a US intervention against Islamic State in that battle would help the Assad regime.

So, in Iraq as well as Syria, contradictions in American policy abound. Islamic State poses a serious threat to the Iraqi government which Washington does not want to collapse. In Syria, on the other end, the American agenda is the exact opposite – to engineer the end of the Assad regime. Just as the United States helped raise a Sunni tribal militia called “Sons of Iraq” to counter the threat of al-Qaida some years ago, opportunism now requires Washington to sustain a Shia regime in Baghdad. To protect that regime, the US is now supporting a predominantly Shia militia, described as the “Popular Mobilisation Units”. In Iraq, America and Iran are in tacit alliance with each other. In Syria they support opposite sides.

With such contradictory motives in Iraq and Syria, America’s strategy against Islamic State cannot succeed.

[END]

From Strange to Bizarre: The Mutations of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

CounterPunch

President Barack Obama and his officials are saying some very strange things about events in the Middle East and Ukraine. The White House was loud in its support for factions who were united only in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, revealed much more about how the State Department was secretly plotting for regime change in Kiev before Yanukovych was abruptly removed from power in a political coup in February.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in December 2013, Nuland admitted that the United States had spent five billion dollars since Ukraine became independent following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 in “developing democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society” and what she described as “a good form of government.” Nuland claimed that all of it was necessary to “achieve the objectives of Ukraine’s European.”

After the opposition takeover in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea where people voted in overwhelming numbers to join the Russian Federation, and the wishes of Russian minorities in the east, brought a very different response from Washington. The Crimean referendum was denounced as illegal and a sham. Ukraine remains in turmoil. Russia on one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other, are locked in a struggle for influence in Ukraine. It is a struggle whose final outcome is far from certain.

In Syria, devastated by three-years of civil war, with external powers pouring oil in the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has also won an overwhelming victory. Fears of the Crimean and Russian minorities in the new Ukraine are understandable. For Ukraine is a broken and vulnerable state, with armed far-right and left groups dominating parts of the country where anarchy rules. Western governments seem obsessed about freedom and democracy, but we hardly hear about security and welfare of Ukraine’s minorities. In Syria, the civil war has extracted a very high toll. If the western narrative was to be believed, then all Syrians are united against Assad, so any election leading to his victory must be fraudulent.

The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with the iron fist for decades. The dynasty might well have been overthrown in the uprising which began in 2011 if a better alternative was present. The truth is that many of Syria’s minorities, Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawites, are terrified by the cruelty of, and conflict within, Assad’s opponents, foreign Salafists in particular. Three years since the uprising began, Western governments, US, British and French, are in a strange situation of their own making. They have lent moral and material support to the enemies of Assad, but are weary and worried of them, for anti-Assad fighters are no lovers of the Western governments and values they preach. What has happened in Libya is a lesson.

History shows that great powers, instead of learning from mistakes, keep repeating the same follies. Ceaseless ideological propaganda, whatever its origin and nature, makes a feeble cover for real motives.

Assad’s victory was by a whopping margin – he secured nearly 89 percent of the vote. It was a win like any other dictator’s, but there is little doubt that many Syrians were scared of the other side, and preferred Assad. The American Secretary of State John Kerry, smarting from his debacle in the Israel-Palestinian talks which were sunk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly moved on. Syria provided an escape route. Kerry described Assad’s victory as “meaningless” and “a great big zero.”

It gets more and more bizarre. Nearly a year after Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and abolished the fragile political order which had evolved after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, there was another presidential election at the end of May. Thousands were killed and even more thrown into jail in the months before. Sisi took 97 percent of the vote, virtually the whole country, while Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters languish in jail. If Assad’s election was “meaningless” and a “great big zero” for the Obama administration, then think of Sisi’s victory margin?

When a ruthless dictator and America’s proxy is in trouble, Washington is slow to respond to events, hoping that the dictator will eventually overcome opposition and it will be all right in the end. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Egypt and beyond, examples are aplenty. More than three decades after the fall of the Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter’s bungled handling of the crisis in what was America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, Barack Obama faced a similar crisis in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was in trouble. Obama dithered.

Mubarak’s rule collapsed under relentless popular pressure, but while the military had disintegrated with the fall of the shah in Iran, the Egyptian armed forces remained intact. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was incomplete in comparison with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The military-led counterrevolution in 2013 has taken Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

For a country born out of a revolution, the United States is remarkably counterrevolutionary. Now that Egypt is again ruled by a former army chief, the White House has said that President Obama is looking forward to working with Sisi “to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt.” The White House claimed that “elections [there] were held in accordance with Egyptian law.”

That Egyptian law, which Obama has so readily accepted as the basis of a closer relationship with Sisi’s government, originates from a constitution which has been heavily criticized for granting the military sweeping powers. The 2014 constitution was introduced after a coup which overthrew Egypt’s freely elected president, abolished parliament and abrogated the 2012 constitution, approved by the Egyptian electorate in a far more relaxed political environment. In cozying up with Sisi, Obama denies that there was ever a coup.

Never mind Obama’s idealism and soaring rhetoric – that was a long time ago, five years ago in fact. Now it is time to build a legacy, so he will do anything. Obama’s foreign policy is a charade.

Continue reading

The Syrian Riddle

CounterPunch, FPJ, Palestine Chronicle

Recent remarks by Carla Del Ponte, a Swiss investigator of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry, have changed the nature of debate on the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war. Momentum had been building up for months against Bashar Syriaal-Assad’s government, first on the basis of accusations that such weapons were in use, followed by heavy hints by anti-Assad groups and Western politicians that the Damascus regime was guilty of chemical warfare against its opponents and civilians. There is no doubt about the unspeakable brutality committed by both sides in the conflict, but chemical warfare, if proven, would mean escalation to another level involving serious war crimes.

Carla Del Ponte, Switzerland’s former attorney general and prosecutor of the UN tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, is no pushover. She is now a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, appointed under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Contrary to subsequent insinuations that she did not know what she was talking about, Del Ponte had chosen her words carefully. She had said that witness testimony made it appear that “some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerve gas.” And it appeared to have been used by the “opponents, by the rebels.” There is “no indication at all that the Syria government … used chemical weapons.” She said she was a “little bit stupefied” that the first indications were of the use of nerve gas by the opponents.

Del Ponte’s remarks, made amid reports of gains by Syrian government forces, seemed to undermine the position of rightwing hawks in Washington like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and in London Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague. These are some of the powerful figures who craft Western policy, but hardly objective and credible voices on Syria and the wider Middle East.

Within hours, enthusiastic interventionists in Washington and a somewhat reluctant Obama administration were scrambling to adjust. The White House said the United States believed that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime. In a stark reminder of Iraq in 2003, the British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted in Parliament: “I can tell the House that there is a growing body of limited but persuasive information that the [Syrian] regime has used and continues to use chemical weapons.” The Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed. Mainstream television channels and newspapers remained broadly uncritical, unquestioning, even generous in giving the benefit of the doubt to Hague, despite lessons of Iraq.

Persuading those who are ideologically drunk and politically myopic is often a hopeless undertaking. Hunger for war and lust for power or for distant resources always impair both reason and morality. The developing situation on the ground has made the war hawks struggle for credibility. For them, the last resort is to assert with dead certainty their “belief” that it is Bashar al-Assad’s forces who have employed chemical weapons and committed war crimes. How could “freedom fighters” do this?

The changing reality of Syria’s long and brutal war, in which government forces show much greater resilience than their opponents’ predictions, has generated some desperation among the rebels and worry in the American and European capitals about Islamist factions gaining control of the anti-Assad campaign. The capture by rebels of UN peacekeeping troops in Syria, freed after a week of behind-the-scenes activity, tells the story, bringing a little more balance in the scenario usually painted before us.

It was the second time in two months that UN peacekeepers had been held by a rebel faction. The United States and its allies are trapped between delusions of total victory in the Middle East and its true consequences – emergence of anti-Western forces such as Al-Nusra Front that are even more aggressive and erratic.

The outcome of the recent Moscow visit of President Obama’s new secretary of state John Kerry is instructive. America’s agreement with Russia that they co-sponsor an international conference to find a negotiated settlement raised some eyebrows in Washington and among U.S. allies in Europe and the Arab world. President Vladimir Putin seemed to have prevailed in his insistence that Assad’s exit cannot be a precondition. But this precondition is the starting point for the Syrian rebels and many of their foreign supporters who have a wider Middle East agenda. A commentary in Italy’s rightwing publication Il Geornale said in its headline, “Obama’s Defeat: To Pacify Syria He Is In Cahoots With Putin.”

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, struggling to maintain his authority within his Conservative Party and coalition with the Liberal Democrats, immediately flew off to Moscow for talks with Putin in an attempt to see that any international conference on Syria is held in London; Cameron’s trip to Washington would be next; Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel planned a visit of his own to Moscow after ordering two secret air attacks against Syrian military facilities in a week; and Israeli and Western newspapers issued warnings that Russia was about to supply S-300 missiles to Assad.

As for Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov maintains that Moscow is “not planning to supply Syria with any weapons beyond the current contracts,” which, he says, are “for defensive purposes.” Russia’s message to Washington, delivered a year ago, continues to be “hands off Syria and Iran.” Obama continues his rhetorical maneuvers. And the war goes on.

[END]

American Stingers’ First Casualty is Diplomacy: Syria’s Parallels with Afghanistan

CounterPunch, August 13, 2012

The revelation about President Barack Obama’s decision to provide secret American aid to Syria’s rebel forces is a game changer. The presidential order, known as an “intelligence finding” in the world of espionage, authorizes the CIA to support armed groups fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. But it threatens far more than the regime in Damascus.

The disclosure took its first casualty immediately. Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, promptly announced his resignation, bitterly protesting that the UN Security Council had become a forum for “finger-pointing and name-calling.” Annan blamed all sides directly involved in the Syrian conflict, including local combatants and their foreign backers. But the timing of his resignation was striking. For he knew that with the CIA helping Syria’s armed groups, America’s Arab allies joining in and the Security Council deadlocked, he was redundant.

President Obama’s order to supply CIA aid to anti-government forces in Syria has echoes of an earlier secret order signed by President Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, in July 1979. Carter’s fateful decision was the start of a CIA-led operation to back Mujahideen groups then fighting the Communist government in Afghanistan. As I discuss the episode in my book Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (chapters 7 & 8), the operation, launched with a modest aid package, became a multi-billion dollar war project against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Soviet Union, whose forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. In the following year, Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, who went for broke, pouring money and weapons into Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation forces to the bitter end.

Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski later claimed that it was done on his recommendation, and that the motive was to lure Soviet forces into Afghanistan to give the Kremlin “its Vietnam.” The Soviets’ humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism and the rise of the Taliban triggered a chain reaction with worldwide consequences. President Obama’s decision to intervene in support of Syria’s rebels, who include fundamentalist Islamic fighters, points to history repeating itself. Brzezinski, now in his 85th year, still visits Washington’s corridors of power. And General David Petraeus, a formidable warrior, is director of the CIA.

Three decades on, it seems likely that President Carter’s motive behind signing the secret order to provide aid to the Mujahideen was to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan’s inhospitable terrain, thus keeping their military away from Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution which overthrew America’s proxy, Shah Reza Pahlavi, in February 1979. If that was indeed the plan, then the Soviet leadership fell right into the Afghan trap.

China was then part of the U.S.-led alliance against the Soviets. Now Beijing and Moscow stand together against Washington as the conflict in Syria escalates. Otherwise, the U.S.-led alliance has many of the old players––the much enlarged European Union, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others in the Sunni bloc in the Arab world. And Turkey, which is now the base for the anti-Assad forces, channeling help to them. Turkey’s Islamist government plays a crucial role in Syria, like Pakistan in the 1980s during America’s proxy war in Afghanistan.

In Washington, an American official told Reuters that “the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.” And a few days before, the news agency reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had established a “nerve center” in Adana in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, to coordinate their activities. The place is home to America’s Incirlik air base and military and intelligence services.

According to NBC News a few days ago, the rebel Free Syrian Army has acquired American MANPAD Stinger missiles via Turkey, clearly to target Syrian government aircraft. It reminds of President Reagan’s decision in the mid-1980s to supply Stingers to Mujahideen groups for use against Soviet aircraft. Their use was first reported in 1987 and it soon emerged that the heat-seeking weapons were so accurate that they were hitting three out of four aircraft in Afghanistan. As I have discussed in my book Breeding Ground, some of the hundreds of Stingers were likely to have been passed on to the Taliban and their allies after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan and the last Communist government in Kabul collapsed in 1992.

In recent months, American and European officials have been busy feeding information to media outlets that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main sources of weapons to rebels in Syria through Turkey. The pattern is consistent with the long-standing Saudi policy to keep Islamists out of Saudi Arabia itself, lest they challenge the ruling family. Long-term lessons of proxy wars remain unheeded for immediate perilous “gains.”

Reports of the Obama administration sending Stinger missiles to Syrian rebels carry the first indication that non-state players now have advanced U.S. weaponry in the Middle East. That Washington is in such a cozy alliance with forces including Islamists soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden on Obama’s personal order is as incredible as it is consistent with follies of the past. The present will define the future again.

The situation in Egypt is becoming explosive. The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Sinai Peninsula by “suspected Islamists,” and violence thereafter, represent challenges on several fronts for the new president Mohamed Morsi. Israel has been quick to blame Islamic militants in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, which has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the Egyptian president. For its part, the Brotherhood has pointed the finger at Israel’s secret service Mossad, claiming it is a plot to thwart Morsi’s presidency. These developments cast a shadow over Morsi’s relations with Hamas and, at the same time, increase his dependence on the Egyptian armed forces to quell the unrest, thereby undermining his authority. Murderous optimism of powerful and suicidal pessimism of victims in an oppressive environment blight the lives of many.

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A Powder Keg in the Middle East: All Eyes On Syria

CounterPunch, July 30, 2012

The refugee crisis in Syria is worsening

In 1995, I had a rare opportunity to spend some time in Syria, where the Damascus Trade Fair was taking place. A normally secretive Arab country had opened its doors to a select group of Western journalists, businessmen and officials. The event was aimed at showing glimpses of a rich mix of civilizations going as far back as between 9000 and 11000 B.C., described as a Hidden Pearl of the Orient. Syria today has Muslims, Shia and Sunni; Assyrian-Syriac Christians, ethnic Kurds and Turkmen in the north; Druze in the south. People of all ethnic and religious groups live in Aleppo, the country’s most populated city. For centuries, Aleppo was the largest urban center in Greater Syria and the third largest in the Ottoman Empire, after Constantinople and Cairo.

Ancient Syria included today’s Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. According to the Torah, on the other hand, God promised the “Land of Israel” to the Jewish people. And on the basis of scripture, the first Kingdom of Israel was established around the eleventh century B.C. Such ancient claims, religious or secular, are at the heart of Middle East politics, in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. A civil war fuelled by foreign intervention has turned large parts of the country into ruins. Damascus is no longer the city where, despite a heavy presence of state security, Syrian families could be seen spending a moonlit evening on a picnic while children played hide and seek in the rocky terrain until well after midnight.

Like its neighbors Lebanon and Iraq above all, Syria has been fragile since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. All three states, and others, were artificially created amid the rubble of the Ottomans’ Arabian domain, in a manner that split communities. The Druze, the Kurds and the Palestinians, each divided and enclosed in different national boundaries drawn by Britain and France under the legal instrument called “Mandate” are part of the legacy of the First World War.

My journey to Damascus in 1995 was by Air France, the only Western carrier flying to Syria at the time. It was a reminder that modern Syria and neighboring Lebanon were carved out by France under the French Mandate while Britain got the lion’s share over Arabia, leading to the creation of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine-Israel.

The manner in which the modern Middle East was carved out by the victorious Allies after 1918, and individual territorial entities granted independence in subsequent decades, made sure that the new states were small, weak and unstable. It also made sure that those states could only be held together by authoritarian rulers, beholden to external powers. New imperialism was born and, like its previous incarnation, it was about controlling vital resources and trade.

Suspicion of Western powers, and of each other, in a highly diverse population runs deep in Syrian society in the same way as in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq who aligned themselves to the United States or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Syria remained the leading member of the “Rejectionist Front” for its determination of no-compromise with Israel and America over issues such as lost Arab territory and Palestine.

The Ba’ath party, rooted in Arab nationalism, secularism and socialism, and dominated by military officers of the minority Alawi (Shia) sect, was as much a thorn in the side of the conservative Arab bloc as the West. The Soviet Union’s demise in the early 1990s was a disaster for Syria. In the aftermath, Damascus did make attempts aimed at reconciliation with Israel, but failed. Syria sought compromises with the West, too, most shamefully in the rendition and torture of people in the “war on terror.” It is mentioned in the Swiss senator Dick Marty’s 2007 report for the Council of Europe and the European Parliamentary Assembly. All that has not produced any concessions for Bashar al-Assad from Washington.

When I visited Syria in 1995, Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was still the country’s president. I was among a small number of foreign journalists invited by Farouk al-Sharaa, then foreign minister, now vice president, to his residence in Damascus. I had taken a small tape recorder with me and, during our conversation over a cup of tea, I requested a short interview with him. In impeccable English, al-Sharaa declined. His response was that “Syrians are not known for instant reactions.”

The Syrians have long been suspicious of the West and its Arab allies while the West has consistently failed to read the country. These failures have been to the detriment of peace in the Middle East. For Syria is essential for peace and stability in the region––something that will not be achieved by a Western-inspired overthrow of the present government in Damascus. If Bashar al-Assad’s government and Syria’s armed forces disintegrate, the consequences for the Middle East will be disastrous. With disparate groups in the population, and weapons aplenty in a volatile region, an Afghan-type scenario is very likely. And the consequences will be worse than those of recent wars.

[END]