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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Syrian Carnage Continues With Fall of Aleppo

Posted by Steve Markowitz on December 15, 2016

It is reported that over 400,000 civilians have died during Syrian conflict in the past five years.  This week it culminated in the refugee stampede out of Aleppo, as the Syrian government with assistance of Russia, basically bombed that city into the Stone Age.

In the early stages of the Syrian conflict the Obama Administration threatened “redlines” that the Syrian government then crossed without consequence.  The Administration also boldly announced on various occasions that the regime of Bashar alAssad’s days were numbered.  Yet the tyrant remains in power years later.

While the situation in Syria is complex, it is clear that the United States and its allies have failed to stem the carnage.  This has not only led to misery for the Syrian people, but also a strengthening of the positions of Russia and Iran in that part of the world.

Irrespective of history or the facts, the Obama Administration refuses to knowledge the shortcomings of its policies relating to Syria.  This was exemplified this week by an exchange between Associated Press correspondent Brad Klapper and State Department spokesman John Kirby.  During that exchange included in the video below, Klapper asked what changes the State Department would make to its failed Syrian policies:

BRAD KLAPPER: You failed repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again, which is a combination of trying to bring together people in some sort of talks with an imperfect ceasefire.  Then when things go badly you get really angry and accuse them of war crimes or crimes against humanity and then nothing ever changes.

You haven’t succeeded once.  You’ve talked about successes sometimes with Russia which looks to everyone like tactical retreats and momentary pauses.  So what are you doing differently to prevent more of the same?

After significant obfuscation, Kirby then rejected any US culpability in the Syrian carnage stating:

KIRBY: What I disagree with is where the failure lies.  The failure lies on the part of the regime and its backers to act with any sense of moral standards for human behavior.

Kirby’s diplomatic two-step would be comical if the resulting policies were not so devastating for the Syrian people.  While the options available to the US may have been limited, it is clear that those implemented by the Obama Administration failed.  The government’s unwillingness to admit to this obvious reality demeans its credibility.  This obfuscation is repeated on a daily basis by governments worldwide, which has led to a growing chorus of discontent by the People.  This discontent was exhibited in the UK’s vote for Brexit, Italy’s recent referendum that led to its prime minister resigning, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.  The ruling class worldwide is tone-deaf to those that they are supposed to serve.  We can expect more of the political elites to be thrown out of office at the People’s discontent rose.  Less certain is the quality of the replacements.

 

Posted in Middle East, Syria | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Middle East’s Artificially Created Countries Disintegrating

Posted by Steve Markowitz on December 2, 2015

Until recently most discussions concerning Middles East territorial integrity issues related to Israel and its borders.  Arab countries and their supporters on the Left viewed the partition that created modern Israel, as created by the United Nations in 1947, the cause of the Middle East’s woes.  This led to the narrative that more “properly” redefining Israel’s borders, along with those of a to-be defined Palestinian state, would bring peace and tranquility to the Middle East.  The ongoing crises in many Arab countries today have not only proven this narrative false, but also a cover-up to more significant regional problems.

middle_eastMost Arab countries, excluding Egypt, were created in the last 100 years by European powers, mainly France and England.  They were not created based on any homogeneous characteristics of their new citizens, but instead for the perceived long-term benefit of their European creators.  While dictators of these created countries were able to keep their diverse populations under control through force and brutality, once they were removed the cauldron created by the Europeans boiled over with many Arab countries now involved in Civil Wars and anarchy.

Since the early 1970’s until recently the United States became the outside power with the greatest influence in the Middle East.  Its policies followed those of the Europeans with the goal being to protect America’s interests, supporting dictators who kept their populations under control.  While this policy was flawed, with the benefit of hindsight it worked reasonably well for nearly four decades.

America’s tacit support of Middle East dictators started to crack under President George W. Bush with the taking down of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Barack Obama doubled down with similar policies, not only supporting so-called democratic movements in various Arab countries, but also supplying military support to bring down Libya strongman Qaddafi.  The results have been catastrophic.

The Obama Administration is scrambling to create a Middle East strategy for a region that has deteriorated significantly since the President’s first election.  Radical Sunni Islam is on the rise, as demonstrated by the growth of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and other Muslim countries.  However, the strategy is being created reactively, instead of proactively, which makes it doomed for failure.  In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry has proven e inept and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East.

Charles Gave of gavekal.com has written a thought-provoking piece concerning the problems and complexities of the Middle East posted below.  The President and Secretary of State seem incapable of understanding the history of the Middle East and the root causes of its complex problems.  They also do not have any comprehension as to who our enemies and friends are in this region. Read the rest of this entry »

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State Department’s Jen Psaki Taken to Woodshed by Fox’s Megyn Kelly

Posted by Steve Markowitz on February 15, 2015

Last Thursday State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki was interviewed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. The interview, link provided below, was another demonstration of the Obama Administration’s feckless and incompetent foreign policy.

The subject of the Psaki interview was the overthrow of the Yemeni government three weeks ago, which was relatively friendly to the United States, by the Houthoi rebels who are not. Also discussed was the unplanned and chaotic departure of American embassy personnel.

When pressed by Kelly as the weather the Yemeni situation was another demonstration of failed American policy in the Middle East, Psaki did the bureaucratic two-step, passing it off as just one of those things. The unwillingness by the Obama Administration to accept any responsibility for the degenerating state of foreign affairs shows the utmost gall.

Just five months ago President Obama touted Yemen as an example of his successful counterterrorism strategy stating: “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” This brings to question what failure looks like to Barack Obama.

Posted in Middle East, President Obama | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

John Kerry Claims Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Behind Rise of Radical Islam

Posted by Steve Markowitz on October 22, 2014

John KerryUS Secretary of State John Kerry is at again proving a lack of knowledge of history and international affairs. At a ceremony at the State Department in honor of the Muslim holiday, Eid al-Adha, Kerry tied increased recruitment of Muslim youths by radical Islamists in Syria and Iraq to the Israeli Palestinian-conflict saying:

“As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about the ISIL (Islamic State) coalition, the truth is we – there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt – and I see a lot of heads nodding – they had to respond to. And people need to understand the connection of that.”

Adding insult to injury, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied that Kerry said what he said: “[H]e did not make any linkage between Israel and the growth of ISIL, period. And we can go back over what he actually said, which I have in front of me. He did not make that linkage.” Either Ms, Harf does not understand English or is a liar. Kerry’s language and inference are clear.

The reaction from Israel was swept with its economic minister, Naftali Bennett, correctly pointing out the obvious:

  • The 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Israel.
  • Global Jihad has nothing to do with Israel.
  • Al-Sisi’s revolution in Egypt had nothing to do with Israel.
  • The disintegration of Iraq has nothing to do with Israel.
  • The massacre of at least 150,000 people, including women and children, by Assad in Syria has nothing to do with Israel.
  • The creation of ISIS had nothing to do with Israel.
  • ISIS’s military gains in Iraq and Syria have nothing to do with Israel.

In conclusion, Bennett pointed out that “the intense hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has nothing to do with Israel”. This last point proves how naïve and uninformed John Kerry is since this Sunni and Shiite hatred predates the creation of the modern state of Israel by some one thousand years!

John Kerry’s Middle East dribble continues the State Department’s misguided approach to the Middle East over the past four decades. It incorrectly focused on the Israeli-Palestinian differences when the real challenges of the Middle East are broader and longer in duration. By avoiding the actual causes behind the stagnation and destitute of so many in many Muslim controlled countries, the State Department held the lid on a pressure cooker that is now exploding. Given history, Kerry’s misguided approach is inexplicable.

Posted in Middle East | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Middle East Quagmire Created 100 Years Ago

Posted by Steve Markowitz on September 1, 2014

The modern Middle East was created nearly 100 years ago by the French and British through an opaque agreement called Sykes-Picot.  This agreement divided the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I into zones and countries that promoted French and British interests.  While these borders suited French and British needs, they created countries that could only be held together by force due to their made up of diverse clans, ethnic groups, and religions that had/have no natural cohesion.

Prior to World War II the colonial powers, the French and British, ruled the Middle East through military power.  World War II sapped both countries of their strength and America became the dominant Western force in the Middle East.

With the Cold War, the Middle East was divided into countries that became proxies of either the United States or USSR.  The Arab countries were ruled by dictators who kept a lid on the feuds between clans and different religions.  With the Arab Spring, as well as the US toppling of Saddam Hussein, the Middle East as created by the French and British under Sykes-Picot unraveled and led to ongoing crisis in various countries.

George Friedman of stratfor.com published an article below titled Iraq and Syria Follow Lebanon’s Precedent that offers a concise history of the Middle East during the past 100 years. It should be required reading for the US State Department and American presidents. Instead, our diplomats continue the failed policies of the past 50 years attempting to maintain the unmaintainable created by Sykes-Picot. And yes, peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not undo the errors of Sykes-Picot.

Iraq and Syria Follow Lebanon’s Precedent is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Iraq and Syria Follow Lebanon’s Precedent, By George Friedman

Lebanon was created out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement between Britain and France reshaped the collapsed Ottoman Empire south of Turkey into the states we know today — Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and to some extent the Arabian Peninsula as well. For nearly 100 years, Sykes-Picot defined the region. A strong case can be made that the nation-states Sykes-Picot created are now defunct, and that what is occurring in Syria and Iraq represents the emergence of those post-British/French maps that the United States has been trying to maintain since the collapse of Franco-British power.

The Invention of Middle East Nation-States

Sykes-Picot, named for French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot and his British counterpart, Sir Mark Sykes, did two things. First, it created a British-dominated Iraq. Second, it divided the Ottoman province of Syria on a line from the Mediterranean Sea east through Mount Hermon. Everything north of this line was French. Everything south of this line was British. The French, who had been involved in the Levant since the 19th century, had allies among the region’s Christians. They carved out part of Syria and created a country for them. Lacking a better name, they called it Lebanon, after the nearby mountain of the same name. Read the rest of this entry »

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Prager Middle East YouTube Goes Viral

Posted by Steve Markowitz on August 7, 2014

Conservative radio talk show commentator, Dennis Prager, posted a YouTube video titled “The Middle East Problem” that has received significant press.  It proffers a very pro- Israeli leaning.  Those that support Israel against Hamas will affirmatively shake their heads after viewing the video.  Those who lean towards the Palestinian position will scoff at it.

Irrespective of one’s position on the current Israeli–Hamas conflict, it is hard to disagree with Prager’s conclusion when he rhetorically asks:  “If tomorrow, Israel laid down its arms and announced, ‘We will fight no more,’ what would happen?  And if the Arab countries around Israel laid down their arms and announced, ‘We will fight no more,’ what would happen?  In the first case, there would be an immediate destruction of the state of Israel and mass murder of its Jewish population.  In the second case, there would be peace the next day.”

Posted in Middle East | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Disintegration of Iraq

Posted by Steve Markowitz on June 17, 2014

Partisan pundits will claim contemporary causes behind the current mess in Iraq.  Democrats will blame George W. Bush for his decision to invade Iraq.  Republicans blame Barack Obama’s his weak foreign policy that included not arranging for some forces to remain when the US withdrew from Iraq.  While these issues played roles in the timing of the evolving events, there are much deeper and longer standing issues at play.

syria_sykes-picotThe Obama Administration and State Department seem to have been caught off guard by the current turmoil in Iraq that could lead to the breakup of a country whose borders were inappropriately created by French and British diplomats in secret during World War I.  For on this tale of ill-advised 20 century diplomacy, the book “Paris 1919” by Margaret Macmillan is recommended.

The basic issue behind the fighting in Iraq is the Sunni-Shia divide that is over 1000 years old.  It started with a power grab after the death of Mohammed and then morphed into an argument over theology.  It borders on lunacy to believe that this long-standing battle can somehow be resolved with the assistance of Western diplomats.  However, that is what diplomats have attempted for over a century.  Instead of learning from their long-standing failures, they merely redouble the efforts that have only led to more misery in the Middle East.

Diplomats worldwide created the false narrative since the 1970s that the problems of the Middle East were centered on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.  Events of the past 10 years have proven that narrative to be utterly false.  In fact, it could be argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict put a temporary lid on the century old Sunni-Shia conflict by creating a false enemy/scapegoat.

In addition to failed Western diplomacy and interests that play a role in the current conflicts in the Middle East, Russia and regional players including other Arab countries, Turkey and Iran also have culpability.  The relationship between these players and their interests is laid out in an article included in Stratfor.com included in its entirety below that is republished with permission of Stratfor.

The United States does not have any good options relating to the Iraqi/Syrian crisis.  This bad situation is magnified by the reality of the inept foreign policy of Barack Obama that has led to aggravated tension worldwide.  A policy defined as “leading from behind” that has left a power vacuum being filled by some really bad characters.

The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising, By Reva Bhalla, JUNE 17, 2014

Events in Iraq over the past week were perhaps best crystallized in a series of photos produced by the jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Sensationally called The Destruction of Sykes-Picot, the pictures confirmed the group’s intent to upend nearly a century of history in the Middle East.

In a series of pictures set to a purring jihadist chant, the mouth of a bulldozer is shown bursting through an earthen berm forming Iraq’s northern border with Syria. Keffiyeh-wrapped rebels, drained by the hot sun, peer around the edges of the barrier to observe the results of their work. The breach they carved was just wide enough for the U.S.-made, Iraqi army-owned and now jihadist-purloined Humvees to pass through in single file. While a charter outlining an antiquated interpretation of Sharia was being disseminated in Mosul, #SykesPicotOver trended on jihadist Twitter feeds. From the point of view of Iraq’s jihadist celebrities, the 1916 borders drawn in secret by British and French imperialists represented by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot to divide up Mesopotamia are not only irrelevant, they are destructible.

Today, the most ardent defenders of those colonial borders sit in Baghdad, Damascus, Ankara, Tehran and Riyadh while the Europeans and Americans, already fatigued by a decade of war in this part of the world, are desperately trying to sit this crisis out. The burden is on the regional players to prevent a jihadist mini-emirate from forming, and beneath that common purpose lies ample room for intrigue.

Turkey Searches for a Strategy

With the jihadist threat fanning out from Syria to Iraq, Turkey is struggling to insulate itself from the violence and to follow a strategic agenda in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has forged an alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership in a direct challenge to Baghdad’s authority. With the consent of Turkey’s energy minister and to the outrage of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, two tankers carrying a few million barrels of Kurdish crude left the Turkish port of Ceyhan in search of a buyer just as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was ratcheting up its offensive. Upping the ante, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced June 16 that a third tanker would be loaded within the week. With al-Maliki now relying on Kurdish peshmerga support to fend off jihadists in the north, Ankara and Arbil have gained some leverage in their ongoing dispute with Baghdad over the distribution of energy revenue. But Turkey’s support for Iraqi Kurds also has limits.

Ankara had planned to use a tighter relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government to exploit northern Iraq’s energy reserves and to manage Kurdish unrest within its own boundaries. However, Turkey never intended to underwrite Kurdish independence. And with Kirkuk now in Kurdish hands as a result of the jihadist surge, the largest oil field in northern Iraq stands ready to fuel Kurdish secessionist tendencies. Much to Turkey’s dismay, Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the People’s Protection Units are already reinforcing peshmerga positions in northern Iraq. At the same time, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its jihadist affiliates are holding 80 Turkish citizens hostage.

Turkey will thus enlarge its footprint in Mesopotamia, but not necessarily on its own terms. Some 1,500 to 2,000 Turkish forces have maintained a quiet presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. That force will likely expand now that Turkey has an array of threats to justify such a presence and a growing need to temper Kurdish ambitions. Iraq’s Kurdish leadership will be reminded of their deep distrust for Turkey but will also be overwhelmed by its own challenges, not least of which is Turkey’s main regional competitor, Iran.

Iran on the Defensive

Unnerved by Turkey’s increasingly assertive Kurdish policy and possibly in anticipation of the expanding jihadist threat sweeping Iraq’s Sunni belt, Iran over the past several months has been expanding its military presence along its northern border with Iraq. Tehran now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to reinforce its Shiite allies in Iraq militarily. Though Iran has perhaps the most sophisticated and extensive militant proxy network in the region to do the job, this strategy carries enormous risks.

Iran has spent recent years painstakingly trying to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq under a central authority in Baghdad. Tehran was never wedded to al-Maliki in particular, but it did need to maintain a strong enough foothold in Baghdad to manage Iraq’s naturally fractious Shiite landscape. Employing Shiite militias enables Iran to reinforce the Iraqi army in a time of urgent need but risks undermining Iran’s long-term strategy to manage Iraq through a firm hand in Baghdad. The more empowered the militias and the weaker Baghdad becomes, the harder Iran will have to work to keep a lid on separatist moves in Iraq’s Shiite south.

The militants rampaging through Iraq’s core Sunni territories will embrace deeper Iranian involvement in the conflict. There is no better motivation for Arab Sunni fighters of various ideological stripes than a call to arms against their historical Persian foes and their Arab Shiite allies. An outpouring of sectarian blood feuds will also make it all the more difficult for Iraq’s Shiite government to recruit enough allies among Iraq’s Sunni population to fight against the jihadists. Indeed, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant would not have been able to mount its lightning surge across Iraq had it not been for the substantial support it has received from local Sunni tribes who in turn receive substantial support and guidance from sponsors in the Persian Gulf. Our attention thus turns to the Saudi royals sitting quietly in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia Stirs the Pot

This has not been a good year for the Saudis. A Persian-American rapprochement is a living nightmare for the Sunni kingdom, as is the prospect of the United States becoming more self-sufficient in energy production. Saudi Arabia has little means to directly sabotage U.S.-Iranian negotiations. In fact, as we anticipated, the Saudis have had to swallow a bitter pill and open up their own dialogue with Iran. But the Saudis are also not without options to make life more difficult for Iran, and if Riyadh is going to be forced into a negotiation with Tehran, it will try to enter talks on its own terms.

Syria and Lebanon always make for useful proxy battlegrounds, though a Sunni rebellion has little chance of actually toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Lebanon is too fragmented for any one regional player to claim a decisive advantage. The contest has thus shifted back to Mesopotamia, where Iran cannot afford to see its Shiite gains slip and where Saudi Arabia — both the government and private citizens — has maintained strong ties with many of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and Mosul provinces that have facilitated the Sunni uprising. There is no love lost between the Saudis and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. In fact, the Saudis have branded it a terrorist organization and have even uncovered cells of the group on Saudi soil plotting against the kingdom.

But the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is also not the only group participating in the current offensive. Former Baathist fighters from the Naqshabandiyya Way along with Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jaish Ansar al-Sunnah are also playing a substantial role in the fighting. Most of the Sunni militias and the growing number of Awakening Council (Sunni fighters recruited by the United States to battle al Qaeda in Iraq) defectors joining these militias coordinate directly with the Majlis Thuwar al Anbar (Anbar insurgents’ council), which in turn coordinates with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant on a selective basis. Saudi Arabia’s acting intelligence chief, Yousef bin Ali al Idrisis, is believed to be in direct communication with the Majlis Thuwar al Anbar, affording Riyadh the opportunity to influence the shape of the battlefield — and thereby to aggravate Iran in a highly sensitive spot.

As a bonus for Saudi Arabia, even as the Sunni uprising is largely confined to Iraq’s Sunni belt and thus unlikely to seriously upset Iraq’s production and exports from the Shiite south, the price of Brent crude has climbed to $113 a barrel for the first time this year. Saudi Arabia is not the only one that welcomes this bump in the price of oil; Russia is quite pleased with the outcome in Iraq as well.

Revisiting a Mysterious Meeting in Sochi

Just days before the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-led offensive in Iraq, a quiet meeting took place at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vacation spot in Sochi on June 3. Putin invited Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to see him and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who cut short an engagement in Moscow to get there on time. Details on the meeting are scarce. Our attempt to obtain information about the gathering from Russian and Saudi contacts resulted in scripted and strangely identical responses that claimed that Saudi Arabia and Russia were discussing a power-sharing resolution for Syria. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency then reported June 10 that Lavrov and al-Faisal had a follow-up phone conversation to discuss a Syrian settlement. Syria may well have been on the agenda, and Russia has an interest in protecting its influence in Damascus through a deal that keeps Syrian President Bashar al Assad in power, but we suspect there was more to these engagements.

Both Saudi Arabia and Russia share two key interests: undermining the U.S.-Iranian negotiating track and ensuring oil prices remain at a comfortable level, i.e., above $100 a barrel. There is little either can do to keep Iran and the United States from negotiating a settlement. In fact, the jihadist threat in Iraq creates another layer of cooperation between Iran and the United States. That said, Washington is now facing another major Middle Eastern maelstrom at the same time it has been anxiously trying to prove to itself and everyone else that the United States has bigger issues to deal with in other parts of the world, namely, in Russia’s backyard. Moreover, the United States and Turkey are not of one mind on how to manage Iraq at a time when Washington needs Ankara’s cooperation against Russia. If an Iraq-sized distraction buys Moscow time to manage its own periphery with limited U.S. interference, all the better for Putin. Meanwhile, if Saudi Arabia can weaken Iran and test U.S.-Iranian cooperation, it might well be worth the risk for Riyadh to try — at least for the time being.

A Lesson from History

Whether by mere coincidence, strategic design or a blend of the two, there are as many winners as there are losers in the Iraq game. Russia knows this game well. The United States, the heir to the Sykes-Picot map, will be forced to learn it fast.

When the French and British were colluding over the post-Ottoman map in 1916, czarist Russia quietly acquiesced as Paris and London divided up the territories. Just a year later, in 1917, the Soviets threw a strategic spanner into the Western agenda by publishing the Sykes-Picot agreement, planting the seeds for Arab insurrection and thus ensuring that Europe’s imperialist rule over the Middle East would be anything but easy. The U.S. administration recognizes the trap that has been laid. But more mindful of the region’s history this time around, Washington will likely leave it to the regional players to absorb most of the risk.

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America’s Flawed Middle Eastern Policies

Posted by Steve Markowitz on January 22, 2014

SyriaThe United States’ and Western Europe’s policies towards in Middle East have been dismal failures.  Europe’s failures began over 100 years ago, culminating in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement.  This then secretive agreement was made between the Britain and France during World War I and mapped out geographic boundaries for newly created countries that both sides felt would protect their colonial interests.  These newly created countries included diverse cultures whose lack of cohesion made their creation ludicrous fantasies of Progressive diplomats.

Prior to World War II, the United States stayed clear of Middle East politics, mainly focusing on its potential oil reserves.  At the conclusion of the war, the United States was the world power and began taking the lead role of shaping international politics towards the Middle East.  Instead of learning from the mistakes made by Britain and France, America’s State Department doubling down on the flawed policies.

Since the creation of the modern state of Israel, the popular vision promoted by Western diplomats has been that the conflict between Arabs and Israelis was the main problem within the greater Middle East.  This belief proffered the view that peace between the Israelis and Arabs (in recent decades the Palestinians) would create a Nirvana in the Middle East.  It view ignored centuries long Middle East conflicts and their exasperation through Britain and France’s Sykes-Picot agreement.

The modern state of Israel was created by the United Nations after World War II, the last major Middle Eastern country created during the 20th century.   At this point in history it is the most successful of these creations.

The modern borders of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were also creations of Western powers after World War I.  The current chaos in these countries is largely the result of the pressures built up within their populations that exploded since the powerful that kept the lid on these boiling pots dictators were removed in the so-called Arab Spring.

There are many divisions within the Arab Middle East that have created centuries-long feuds.  The largest and best-known in the West is the Sunni-Shiite divide which is religiously based within Islam.

With the exception of Iraq, Sunnis are the majority in Arab countries.  However, there are other significant minorities including Maronite Christians, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Druze, Alawite’s, Coptic’s, and Kurds.  Many of these minorities have been feuding and fighting with others for hundreds of years.  This is complicated even more by the fact that their subdivisions within minorities based on tribal relationships.  It is the West’s lack of understanding of these feuds and their depth, or ignoring them, that has resulted in failed policies towards the Middle East for so many years.  Those failures continue to be compounded.

US Secretary of State John Kerry representing the Obama Administration is the latest Western diplomat attempting to “repair” the Middle East in the West’s image.  This includes yet another attempt to create a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.  It is a childless endeavor that ignores the reality that negotiated settlements can only be made when both sides want peace, not because of an outsider’s influence.

In addition, Kerry is heavily involved in yet another attempted effort of diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war.  The current diplomatic gathering is in Montreux, Switzerland.  It will fail, again because it takes two sides to want peace and compromise towards that end.  However, compromise is not possible in Syria, a country with the Alawite minority governing the Sunni majority for over 40 years.

Unfortunately, the Alawites obtained their position in Syria with the backing of the French after World War II.  Now, the French back Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis rebels in Syria, yet another example of the West inept diplomacy and policies in the Middle East.

The Obama Administration has indicated that the Syrian solution requires transitioning power from the current Alawite dictator, Bashir Assad, to a Sunni majority backed government.  The Alawites cannot relinquish power given the carnage they had inflicted on the Sunni majority over many years.  That majority would take its revenge on the Alawite community, given the opportunity.

The Syrian Civil War has become a proxy battle between Islam’s Sunnis and Shiites.  The Sunni rebels are backed by Saudi Arabia with Shiite Iran backing the Alawites.  Included below is a related article titled The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War that is republished with permission of Stratfor.  As a correctly concludes, there are no easy or good conclusions to the current Syrian conflict.

Faced with the reality of the civil war in Syria that makes a diplomatic settlement unrealistic, Progressive diplomats typically would respond as they always do with the statement similar to: “we need to try something” to stop the violence.  Western diplomats have been using similar reasoning for over 100 years in the Middle East.  Given history, one must now ask if these efforts have made the violence worse.

The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War, By Reva Bhalla, Janauary 21, 2014

International diplomats will gather Jan. 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux to hammer out a settlement designed to end Syria’s three-year civil war.  The conference, however, will be far removed from the reality on the Syrian battleground.  Only days before the conference was scheduled to begin, a controversy threatened to engulf the proceedings after the United Nations invited Iran to participate, and Syrian rebel representatives successfully pushed for the offer to be rescinded.   inability to agree upon even who would be attending the negotiations is an inauspicious sign for a diplomatic effort that was never likely to prove very fruitful.

There are good reasons for deep skepticism.  As Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces continue their fight to recover ground against the increasingly fratricidal rebel forces, there is little incentive for the regime, heavily backed by Iran and Russia, to concede power to its sectarian rivals at the behest of Washington, especially when the United States is already negotiating with Iran. Ali Haidar, an old classmate of al Assad’s from ophthalmology school and a long-standing member of Syria’s loyal opposition, now serving somewhat fittingly as Syria’s National Reconciliation Minister, captured the mood of the days leading up to the conference in saying “Don’t expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis.  The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state.”

Widespread pessimism over a functional power-sharing agreement to end the fighting has led to dramatic speculation that Syria is doomed either to break into sectarian statelets or, as Haidar articulated, revert to the status quo, with the Alawites regaining full control and the Sunnis forced back into submission.  Both scenarios are flawed.  Just as international mediators will fail to produce a power-sharing agreement at this stage of the crisis, and just as Syria’s ruling Alawite minority will face extraordinary difficulty in gluing the state back together, there is also no easy way to carve up Syria along sectarian lines.  A closer inspection of the land reveals why.

The Geopolitics of Syria

Before the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement traced out an awkward assortment of nation-states in the Middle East, the name Syria was used by merchants, politicians and warriors alike to describe a stretch of land enclosed by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean to the west, the Sinai Peninsula to the south and the desert to the east. If you were sitting in 18th-century Paris contemplating the abundance of cotton and spices on the other side of the Mediterranean, you would know this region as the Levant – its Latin root “levare” meaning “to raise,” from where the sun would rise in the east. If you were an Arab merchant traveling the ancient caravan routes in the Hejaz, or modern-day Saudi Arabia, facing the sunrise to the east, you would have referred to this territory in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham, or the “land to the left” of Islam’s holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula.

Whether viewed from the east or the west, the north or the south, Syria will always find itself in an unfortunate position surrounded by much stronger powers.  The rich, fertile lands straddling Asia Minor and Europe around the Sea of Marmara to the north, the Nile River Valley to the south and the land nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to the east give rise to larger and more cohesive populations.  When a power in control of these lands went roaming for riches farther afield, they inevitably came through Syria, where blood was spilled, races were intermixed, religions were negotiated and goods were traded at a frenzied and violent pace.

Consequently, only twice in Syria’s pre-modern history could this region claim to be a sovereign and independent state: during the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, based out of Antioch (the city of Antakya in modern-day Turkey) from 301 to 141 B.C., and during the Umayyad Caliphate, based out of Damascus, from A.D. 661 to 749.  Syria was often divided or subsumed by its neighbors, too weak, internally fragmented and geographically vulnerable to stand its own ground. Such is the fate of a borderland.

Unlike the Nile Valley, Syria’s geography lacks a strong, natural binding element to overcome its internal fissures.  An aspiring Syrian state not only needs a coastline to participate in sea trade and guard against sea powers, but also a cohesive hinterland to provide food and security. S yria’s rugged geography and patchwork of minority sects have generally been a major hindrance to this imperative.

Syria’s long and extremely narrow coastline abruptly transforms into a chain of mountains and plateaus.  Throughout this western belt, pockets of minorities, including Alawites, Christians and Druze, have sequestered themselves, equally distrustful of outsiders from the west as they are of local rulers to the east, but ready to collaborate with whomever is most likely to guarantee their survival.  The long mountain barrier then descends into broad plains along the Orontes River Valley and the Bekaa Valley before rising sharply once again along the Anti-Lebanon range, the Hawran plateau and the Jabal al-Druze mountains, providing more rugged terrain for persecuted sects to hunker down and arm themselves.

Just west of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the Barada river flows eastward, giving rise to a desert oasis also known as Damascus.  Protected from the coast by two mountain chains and long stretches of desert to the east, Damascus is essentially a fortress city and a logical place to make the capital.  But for this fortress to be a capital worthy of regional respect, it needs a corridor running westward across the mountains to Mediterranean ports along the ancient Phoenician (or modern-day Lebanese) coast, as well as a northward route across the semi-arid steppes, through Homs, Hama and Idlib, to Aleppo.

The saddle of land from Damascus to the north is relatively fluid territory, making it an easier place for a homogenous population to coalesce than the rugged and often recalcitrant coastline. Aleppo sits alongside the mouth of the Fertile Crescent, a natural trade corridor between Anatolia to the north, the Mediterranean (via the Homs Gap) to the west and Damascus to the south.  While Aleppo has historically been vulnerable to dominant Anatolian powers and can use its relative distance to rebel against Damascus from time to time, it remains a vital economic hub for any Damascene power.

Finally, jutting east from the Damascus core lie vast stretches of desert, forming a wasteland between Syria and Mesopotamia.  This sparsely populated route has long been traveled by small, nomadic bands of men – from caravan traders to Bedouin tribesmen to contemporary jihadists – with few attachments and big ambitions.

Demography by Design

The demographics of this land have fluctuated greatly, depending on the prevailing power of the time.  Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, formed the majority in Byzantine Syria.  The Muslim conquests that followed led to a more diverse blend of religious sects, including a substantial Shiite population.  Over time, a series of Sunni dynasties emanating from Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and Asia Minor made Syria the Sunni-majority region that it is today.  While Sunnis came to heavily populate the Arabian Desert and the saddle of land stretching from Damascus to Aleppo, the more protective coastal mountains were meanwhile peppered with a mosaic of minorities.  The typically cult-like minorities forged fickle alliances and were always on the lookout for a more distant sea power they could align with to balance against the dominant Sunni forces of the hinterland.

The French, who had the strongest colonial links to the Levant, were masters of the minority manipulation strategy, but that approach also came with severe consequences that endure to this day.  In Lebanon, the French favored Maronite Christians, who came to dominate Mediterranean sea trade out of bustling port cities such as Beirut at the expense of poorer Sunni Damascene merchants.  France also plucked out a group known as the Nusayris living along the rugged Syrian coast, rebranded them as Alawites to give them religious credibility and stacked them in the Syrian military during the French mandate.

When the French mandate ended in 1943, the ingredients were already in place for major demographic and sectarian upheaval, culminating in the bloodless coup by Hafiz al Assad in 1970 that began the highly irregular Alawite reign over Syria.  With the sectarian balance now tilting toward Iran and its sectarian allies, France’s current policy of supporting the Sunnis alongside Saudi Arabia against the mostly Alawite regime that the French helped create has a tinge of irony to it, but it fits within a classic balance-of-power mentality toward the region.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The delegates discussing Syria this week in Switzerland face a series of irreconcilable truths that stem from the geopolitics that have governed this land since antiquity.

The anomaly of a powerful Alawite minority ruling Syria is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon.  Alawite forces are holding their ground in Damascus and steadily regaining territory in the suburbs.  Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is meanwhile following its sectarian imperative to ensure the Alawites hold onto power by defending the traditional route from Damascus through the Bekaa Valley to the Lebanese coast, as well as the route through the Orontes River Valley to the Alawite Syrian coast.  So long as the Alawites can hold Damascus, there is no chance of them sacrificing the economic heartland.

It is thus little wonder that Syrian forces loyal to al Assad have been on a northward offensive to retake control of Aleppo.  Realizing the limits to their own military offensive, the regime will manipulate Western appeals for localized cease-fires, using a respite in the fighting to conserve its resources and make the delivery of food supplies to Aleppo contingent on rebel cooperation with the regime.  In the far north and east, Kurdish forces are meanwhile busy trying to carve out their own autonomous zone against mounting constraints, but the Alawite regime is quite comfortable knowing that Kurdish separatism is more of a threat to Turkey than it is to Damascus at this point.

The fate of Lebanon and Syria remain deeply intertwined.  In the mid-19th century, a bloody civil war between Druze and Maronites in the densely populated coastal mountains rapidly spread from Mount Lebanon to Damascus.  This time around, the current is flowing in reverse, with the civil war in Syria now flooding Lebanon.  As the Alawites continue to gain ground in Syria with aid from Iran and Hezbollah, a shadowy amalgam of Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia will become more active in Lebanon, leading to a steady stream of Sunni-Shiite attacks that will keep Mount Lebanon on edge.

The United States may be leading the ill-fated peace conference to reconstruct Syria, but it doesn’t really have any strong interests there.  The depravity of the civil war itself compels the United States to show that it is doing something constructive, but Washington’s core interest for the region at the moment is to preserve and advance a negotiation with Iran.  This goal sits at odds with a publicly stated U.S. goal to ensure al Assad is not part of a Syrian transition, and this point may well be one of many pieces in the developing bargain between Washington and Tehran.  However, al Assad holds greater leverage so long as his main patron is in talks with the United States, the only sea power currently capable of projecting significant force in the eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt, the Nile Valley power to the south, is wholly ensnared in its own internal problems.  So is Turkey, the main power to the north, which is now gripped in a public and vicious power struggle that leaves little room for Turkish adventurism in the Arab world.  That leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran as the main regional powers able to directly manipulate the Syrian sectarian battleground.  Iran, along with Russia, which shares an interest in preserving relations with the Alawites and thus its access to the Mediterranean, will hold the upper hand in this conflict, but the desert wasteland linking Syria to Mesopotamia is filled with bands of Sunni militants eager for Saudi backing to tie down their sectarian rivals.

And so the fighting will go on.  Neither side of the sectarian divide is capable of overwhelming the other on the battlefield and both have regional backers that will fuel the fight.  Iran will try to use its relative advantage to draw the Saudi royals into a negotiation, but a deeply unnerved Saudi Arabia will continue to resist as long as Sunni rebels still have enough fight in them to keep going  Fighters on the ground will regularly manipulate appeals for cease-fires spearheaded by largely disinterested outsiders, all while the war spreads deeper into Lebanon.  The Syrian state will neither fragment and formalize into sectarian statelets nor reunify into a single nation under a political settlement imposed by a conference in Geneva.  A mosaic of clan loyalties and the imperative to keep Damascus linked to its coastline and economic heartland – no matter what type of regime is in power in Syria – will hold this seething borderland together, however tenuously.

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Iraq and Afghanistan in Turmoi

Posted by Steve Markowitz on January 3, 2014

It has been a dozen years since the 9/11 attack by Islamic terrorists on the United States.  That attack ultimately led to US invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq.  History will judge the results of these wars with mixed results.

Most Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan who harbored the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks and refused to expel them.  The initial war effort under the Bush Administration was brilliant.  With a relatively small number of American special forces and using indigenous forces, the Taliban were relatively quickly and painlessly routed from power.

After the overthrow of the Taliban America’s strategic goals in Afghanistan became muddled.  The Bush administration properly determined that winning a war in that country was not feasible and therefore went on a holding action while it focused on Iraq.

The inauguration of Barack Obama offered the United States a choice on Afghanistan.  After approximately a year of dithering Obama decided on Afghan surge, but added with a definitive pullout date for American troops.  This was a strategy doomed for failure.  The Afghans have been fighting foreign invaders for centuries.  Informing them that all they had to do was hold out a few years was but an invitation for their ultimate victory.

A CNN poll released last month shows the low level of American support for the war in Afghanistan.  That support is now below 20% of those polled, down from 52% at the time of Obama’s first election.

President Obama campaigned for his first term with the promise of ending the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The fact that Americans are still dying in Afghanistan five years later is but one of another of his broken promise.  The reality that the Taliban are likely to regain power once we leave demonstrates a wasted effort and the loss of American treasure.

The outcome of America’s efforts in Iraq is faring no better.  The last American troops departed Iraq in late 2011.  Since then the country has gone from relative stability to fracturing.  The New York Times reported that radical Sunnis aligned with Al Qaeda are successfully gaining control in Falluja and Ramadi.  These two areas were pacified by American troops with great sacrifice during President Bush’s surge.  The Times has reported that Iraqi civilian casualties are approaching a five-year high.

The sole responsibility for America’s involvement in Iraq rests with President George W. Bush.  However, Barack Obama has been president for over five years and must now bear partial responsibility for the deteriorating situation there and in the greater Middle East.

  • President Obama’s decision to back the ouster of Libyan dictator Qaddafi has resulted in that country devolving into chaos.
  • The current Syrian Civil War may have been averted had Obama backed the Democratic protesters during the first few months of the unrest.  This Syrian conflict is now spilling over into Lebanon.
  • The ongoing Egyptian turmoil has not benefited from Obama’s decision to throw its previous dictator, Mubarak, under the bus.

Add to the above the US’s fracturing relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran’s continued March to nuclear weapons and a story unfolds of a pitifully inept and dangerous foreign policy on the part of Barrack Obama.

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Turkey’s Protest Becoming More Violent

Posted by Steve Markowitz on June 20, 2013

Turkey has been an unusual example of stability in a Muslim majority country in the Middle East.  It owes this stability mainly to the actions of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s who after seeing the decline of his Ottoman Empire verses the West, made Turkey a secularist country.  This mandate was backed by the military who intervened on various occasions when Islamists attempted to gain governmental powers.

In 2003 Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was elected.  His party has pursued a more Islamist oriented government.  One early manifestations of this bent was a fraying of Turkey’s relations with Israel, who for many years was a close ally of Turkey.

In recent weeks there have been ominous signs of growing tensions between Turkeys’ Islamists and secularists.  It began innocently enough when a few hundred Turks protested the government’s decision to close an Istanbul park.  Instead of allowing the protests to run their course Prime Minister Erdogan sent in riot police to aggressively disperse protestors.  This act angered secularists who see Erdogan taking powers not allowed under Turkish law.  The protests grew to include tens of thousands and became violent.

On Sunday Turkish riot police ejected all protesters.  In addition, the New York Times reported that the government increased its crackdown on anti-government protestors in other parts of Turkey.  This includes threatening medics who treated injured protestors and blaming the foreign media for causing protests and improperly portraying them.  Erdogan’s aggressive comments this week included:

“We know very well the ones that sheltered in their hotels those who cooperated with terror. Will they not be held accountable? If we do not hold them accountable, then the nation will hold us accountable.”

“You portrayed Turkey differently to the world.  You are left alone with your lies.  This nation is not the one that you misrepresented to the world,” specifically referring to BBC, CNN and Reuters.

More chilling, the Times reports that Erdogan has started counter rallies of Islamists supporters, bussing hundreds of thousands to them.  At one rally Erdogan supporters chanted: “Go gas them, Captain! Break their hands!

It remains to be seen how effective in quelling antigovernment protests Erdogan’s aggressive tactics will be.  Clearly Turkish stability has taken a step backwards.  This is troubling given the instability throughout the Islamic Middle East as exhibited in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Syria.  It is unrealistic to expect long-term stability in this region until there is a broader awakening throughout Muslim society that includes tolerance for opposing religions and views.

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