// archives

Archive for December, 2017

Islamic State: Is It Over?

Late last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Syria, allegedly to discuss a final peace settlement in the Syrian civil war. On Monday he was in Syria to announce a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country because they had inflicted a “total rout” on the jihadist militants of Islamic State. Is the war really over?

Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, no longer exists as an actual, physical state in either Iraq or Syria. Last summer it lost Mosul, Iraq’s second city, to Iraqi troops backed by US air power. Over the past four months it has lost all of eastern Syria, including its capital Raqqa, to a variety of forces including Kurdish, Syrian, and Iranian troops and American and Russian bombers.

Just one year ago, Islamic State controlled a territory the size of Belgium and the Netherlands, with 7 or 8 million people. Now it is homeless, and even its propaganda output has dropped by 90 percent as its video production facilities were overrun one after the other. Its credibility among the faithful has taken an even bigger hit.

When the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the re-founding of the traditional Islamic Caliphate in the territory controlled by ISIS in mid-2014, he was claiming quite specifically that the enterprise had God’s blessing. So it’s deeply embarrassing when it loses all that territory again within 30 months to the local ‘enemies of God’ and their infidel foreign allies.

The standard tactic of prophets, when their prophecies don’t come true, is to say that God is just testing people’s faith. We are already seeing some of this in ISIS propaganda, but the people who watch it are not complete fools. If they are fanatics interested in waging jihad, they will not abandon the idea, but they will look for some other organisation that has a better claim to divine support.

That alternative organisation, at least in Syria, is al-Qaeda. It still has credibility because it planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and its Syrian branch still controls most of the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. It was never as interested as Islamic State in attracting foreign volunteers, but if you’re a Syrian jihadi, it’s now the destination of choice.

The Syria branch of al-Qaeda was known as al-Nusra for a long time, but in the past two years it has changed its name approximately every second weekend in a bid to disguise its origins. It wasn’t trying to hide its loyalties from potential recruits. It was pretending to be a ‘moderate’ rebel group so that it wouldn’t get hit by American bombers.

This didn’t actually fool the Americans, of course, but it did allow them to denounce the Russians – who WERE bombing al-Nusra/al-Qaeda – as evil allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who were killing ‘good’ rebels. Oh, and killing innocent civilians, too, as if American bombs never hit civilians.

Al-Nusra was the Russians’ main target because it was a bigger threat to the survival of the Syrian government than Islamic State. It was al-Nusra, for example, that controlled the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, until Assad’s forces took it back a year ago with the help of Russian bombers and artillery.

Remember how the Western media covered the end of that siege? They never mentioned al-Qaeda or al-Nusra, and you never saw a fighter in the video clips coming out of east Aleppo. They just ran the footage of suffering civilians without any further comment or context.

It was hard to tell whether Barack Obama’s State Department was being delusional or merely hypocritical, but it insisted that there was a ‘third force’ of non-jihadi Syrians that was also trying to overthrow Assad. The US was supporting them, and the wicked Russians were trying to kill them. But the ‘third force’ didn’t exist: it had been swallowed up by al-Nusra years ago.

So the US bombed Islamic State and nobody else, while the Russians only did that occasionally. Instead, they concentrated on bombing al-Nusra, which held territory much closer to Syria’s big cities. And Washington scored propaganda points by claiming that the Russians were bombing innocent civilians and ‘good’ rebels.

Now, with Islamic State defeated, the US forces will probably leave eastern Syria. (They have no legal status there, since they were never invited in by the Syrian government or authorised to intevene by the United Nations.) But most of the Russian forces will stay, because it will probably take another year to destroy al-Nusra in Idlib province.

So why was Putin in Syria to announce a Russian troop withdrawal? Because there’s a presidential election coming up in Russia, and he wanted to declare a victory and bring some troops home now. But the war goes on.
_______________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“al-Nusra…context”)

Brexit Blues

Politicians never lie. Well, hardly ever. They’re not into full disclosure, as a rule, but they know that if you lie, sooner or later you will be caught out, and then you are in deep trouble. So just change the subject, or answer a different question than the one you were asked, or just keep talking but saying nothing until everybody gets bored and moves on.

British prime minister Theresa May had a bad day with the truth recently. She got her job when last year’s referendum came out narrowly in favour of leaving the European Union – Brexit – and the previous prime minister, David Cameron, had to resign. Her task is to lead the country out of the EU, and it’s been a nightmare, with her own cabinet evenly split between Leavers and Remainers.

But then a talk radio host called Iain Dale asked her live on air the question she must have been dreading: would she now vote Leave if there was another referendum? She couldn’t say no, because she is leading the negotiations with the EU about leaving. She couldn’t say yes, because that would be a lie. So she waffled and dodged.

Dale heard her out, and then, very politely, asked her the same question again. She dodged again. So he asked her again. And again. After four goes, it was perfectly clear to everybody that she would not vote Leave, and probably didn’t in the first referendum either. It’s hard being a politician sometimes.

The United Kingdom is now halfway out of the EU – or rather, May’s government has now used up half the time that was available to negotiate an amicable divorce settlement and decide on the post-separation terms of trade with the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner by far. Unfortunately, it has not settled half the issues that need to be decided, or even a quarter. Maybe one-tenth.

The delay is almost entirely due to the deep divisions in her own cabinet. Half of them are Brexiteers, some of them quite fanatical about the need to Leave, while the other half secretly wish the referendum had come out the other way. And if they do have to leave, they don’t want to go very far.

It’s all about ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. The fanatics want a ‘hard Brexit’ in which the UK crashes out of the EU without so much as a post-Brexit trade deal, while their opponents want to stay in the customs union and even the ‘single market’ (where all the EU countries adhere to common standards for goods and services).

May couldn’t afford to alienate either side by taking a stand, because the consequent war within the cabinet would probably bring the government down – and the Conservatives would probably lose the subsequent election. But if she couldn’t tell her own colleagues which way she was going to jump, she couldn’t tell the EU negotiators either, and so eighteen months have passed with very little accomplished.

Now she has been forced out into the open – by the ‘Irish question’, of all things. The one land border between the United Kingdom and the EU is in Ireland.: Northern Ireland is part of the UK and on its way out of the EU; the Republic of Ireland is staying in the EU. So obviously, there will have to be customs posts and other controls on that border post-Brexit.

But there must not be that kind of ‘hard border’ or the war in the North is likely to start up again. Part of the deal that persuaded the fighters of the IRA to lay down their arms 20 years ago was the guarantee of a ‘soft border’ between the two parts of Ireland, with no passport checks, no customs controls, no barriers of any kind. Break that deal, and it probably wouldn’t be long before the killing started again.

Theresa May couldn’t go on ignoring this question, because she depends on the support of a small Northern Irish party for her majority in parliament. In the end, she had to agree to what she called ‘regulatory alignment’ between the UK and the EU in order to keep that border open. For all practical purposes, that means the UK must stay in the EU customs union and internal market, although it will no longer have any say in how they are run.

This does reduce the whole Brexit enterprise to a complete nonsense: the UK will pay 40 billion euros in compensation to ‘leave’ the EU, and end up approximately back where it started. It’s still better than crashing out without a deal, and it may be what May secretly wanted all along, but there is going to be a rebellion by the Brexiteers in the cabinet sooner or later.

So it’s all up in the air again, really: hard Brexit, soft Brexit, or even drop the whole idea and stay in the EU. It was always a stupid idea, and the grown-ups are definitely not in charge.
______________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“Politicians…on”; and “It’s…services”)

Next Year in Jerusalem

“All of us are saying: ‘Hey, United States, we don’t think this is a very good idea’,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah II in 2002, when it became clear that President George W. Bush was going to invade Iraq. But Bush didn’t listen, and it turned out to be an extremely bad idea.

This time, with President Donald J. Trump about to announce that the United States will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, King Abdullah
simply sounded resigned: “The adoption of this resolution will have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East.”

He knows there’s no point in protesting, even if it ends up meaning that Jordan has to break diplomatic relations with Israel. Trump is simply keeping a campaign promise he made in order to win the votes of American Jews and evangelicals, and he neither knows or cares about the implications of his decision for the Middle East.

Neither does he care that he is abandoning an American policy that has endured for seven decades and is still observed by every other country with an embassy in Israel. They are all down on the coast, in Tel Aviv, because the final status of Jerusalem in international law is still to be determined.

It’s still up in the air because the 1947 United Nations resolution that recommended the creation of independent Jewish and Arab states in Palestine also put Jerusalem under a separate Special International Regime, since it is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

That never happened, because the UN resolution triggered a war that left Jerusalem divided between Israel and what remained of Arab Palestine (all of which was promptly annexed by Jordan and Egypt). And since the Old City, the heart of Jerusalem, was now part of Jordan and exclusively Arab in population, all the embassies stayed in Tel Aviv.

In the 1967 war Israel conquered the eastern, Arab-majority part of Jerusalem (and all the rest of Palestine too), and in 1980 it declared that the entire ‘reunited’ city would be Israel’s eternal capital. The embassies still didn’t move, however, because Israel had not more right to annex East Jerusalem in 1980 than Jordan did in 1948. International law no longer allows borders to be moved by force.

Nothing has changed since then. There are 88 foreign embassies in Tel Aviv, and not one in Jerusalem. This is inconvenient, since most Israeli government offices are up in Jerusalem, but diplomats and foreign ministries generally take international law quite seriously. They’d gladly move if Jerusalem were internationally recognised as Israel’s capital, but it is not.

This view of things is enshrined in the Oslo accords of 1993, a US-sponsored pact that has defined the Arab-Israeli ‘peace process’ for the past quarter-century. It leaves the final status of Jerusalem to be decided by negotiations between the two parties – although, significantly, Israel did not cancel its 1980 annexation of Arab Jerusalem when it signed the accord.

Now in fact, everybody knows that Israel has no intention of ever giving up Jerusalem as its capital, and that it is too strong for any combination of Arab countries to force it to do so. Everybody realises (or should realise) that the ‘peace process’ has actually been dead for at least a decade, and that there is currently no possibility of resurrecting it. So this whole fuss is just about symbolism – but symbols matters.

Everybody goes on pretending that there is a ‘peace process’, just as they pretend that the status of Jerusalem is still unsettled and that the United States is neutral between Israel and the Palestinans, because these fictions allow the Arabs, and especially the Palestinians, to pretend they have not lost the struggle decisively. But they have, at least for this generation.

What Trump is doing now, for no better reason than to keep some American voters happy, is rubbing the Arabs’ noses in their defeat. Being normal human beings, they will respond by re-opening the struggle – not to the point where they risk being destroyed by Israel, but at least enough to save face and do a lot of damage.

Some Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel (and even some other Muslim countries) will feel compelled to downgrade them or cut ties completely. Jordan and Egypt, which actually have peace treaties with Israel, may be forced to reconsider them. The Palestinians may feel obliged to launch a third intifada, just to show that somehow they are still in the game. It won’t be Armageddon, but it could get quite ugly.

There is one important group of pro-Trump voters, however, who would be delighted if it did turn into a real war: white evangelical Christians, or at least the ‘dispensationalists’ amongst them. Armageddon is what the Bible prophesies, in their reading of it, and they eagerly await the prophecy’s fulfillment. Even if it comes at the hand of a thrice-married pussy-grabber.
____________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Nothing…accord”)

The End of Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh seized power in Yemen in 1978, when he was only 36 years old. He lost it in 2012, when the ‘Arab spring’ was in full spate, and had been trying to get it back ever since. Thirty-four years was not enough. But on Monday, his truly astonishing ability to switch sides got him killed.

Saleh was Saudi Arabia’s man in Yemen for a long time, but when Riyadh turned against him in 2012 and put his vice-president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in power instead, Saleh went rogue. A lot of the army was still loyal to him, so he made an alliance with the powerful Houthi tribes in the north (exactly the same people whom he had attacked six times in the past), and started working his way back.

In 2014 the Houthi militia and Saleh’s forces seized control of the capital, Sanaa, and Saudi Arabia’s new placeman, President Hadi, fled south to Aden, the country’s second city. Later Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi-Saleh alliance took over most of the country.

Yemen matters a lot to the Saudis, because it is the other big country in the Arabian peninsula, with 27 million people (same as Saudi Arabia), but it is very poor and very unstable. The fact that almost half the Yemenis follow the Shia branch of Islam (in their own Zaidi variant) is of particular concern to the Saudi regime.

Such distinctions didn’t stop the Houthis (who are Shia) from getting together with Saleh’s people (who are mostly Sunnis), because Yemenis are not much troubled by such things. But the Saudi Arabian regime, all Sunnis, is obsessed by the ‘Shia threat’. That mostly means Iran, their rival across the Gulf, but the Saudis sees Iranian plots everywhere, especially if there are Shias involved.

The current Yemeni civil war is about the twentieth such power struggle in the past thousand years, and little different from all the others. Iran no doubt enjoys the Saudi Arabian panic about it, but there is no evidence that it is sending the Houthis anything except good wishes. Whereas Riyadh and its allies are sending bombers.

In March 2015 Saudi Arabia and eight Arab allies launched a bombing campaign against the Houthis and Saleh’s forces, with the United States and the United Kingdom both providing political, logistical and propaganda support to the operation. More than 8,000 Yemenis have been killed by the coalition’s air strikes and around 50,000 wounded, but the lines on the ground have scarcely shifted in the past two years.

The air war has been very costly for Saudi Arabia both in money and in reputation, and it has been getting increasingly embarrassing for the man who started it, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. So Ali Abdullah Saleh calculated that this was the right time to change sides: he could get a good price for ratting on the Houthis, and maybe even recover the presidency he had held for so long.

He pretended to be driven by humanitarian motives. In a televised speech on Saturday, he called on “the brothers in neighbouring states and the coalition to stop their aggression, lift the siege, open the airports and allow food aid and the saving of the wounded, and we will turn a new page by virtue of our neighbourliness.”

The bit about “aggression” was meant to placate his Yemeni audience, which does not love the Saudis, but he was actually offering to change sides. The Saudi-led coalition immediately responded, welcoming Saleh’s decision to “take the lead and to…free Yemen of…militias loyal to Iran.”

The Houthis, however, had seen his treachery coming. They accused Saleh of staging a coup against “an alliance he never believed in,” and Sanaa was engulfed by heavy artillery fire as the Houthis went to war against their former ally. Despite Saudi air strikes to help Saleh’s forces, the Houthis had fought their way to within 200 metres of Saleh’s house by Monday morning.

Reports differ about what happened next. Some say Saleh died in the wreckage of his house, which was blown up by Houthi fighters. Others say he made a run for it in his car, which was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. What the internet images show is a fatal wound in his head. The old fox is definitely dead, and the civil war within the civil war is probably over.

Bits of Saleh’s army may fight on for a while, but without him to bind them together most of Saleh’s soldiers will eventually either go over to the Houthis or go home. The Houthis will be a bit weaker without Saleh’s support, but so long as the the coalition’s members are not willing to put large numbers of their own troops in the ground in Yemen – and they are not – the Houthis will probably keep control of most of the country.

And the war will go on until Mohammed bin Salman gets tired of it, or the Saudis get tired of him.
_________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He…Iran”)