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Coalition of the Unwilling

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, defending his decision to regard Stalin as an ally after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

If the brutal fanatics of ISIS and their new “Islamic State” in parts of Iraq and Syria were really an existential threat to the United States, then President Barack Obama, using the same logic, would now be treating the governments of Syria and Iran as allies. But he isn’t.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just ended a recruiting tour of the Middle East, signing up Arab states and Turkey for a new coalition that will allegedly “degrade and ultimately destroy (ISIS).” Moreover, it must do so without ever requiring US “boots on the ground”: the American public would not stand for any more of that.

The US will happily provide air strikes if others will do the dying on the ground, of course, and the Iraqi government will go along with that deal since it has just lost a third of its national territory to ISIS. But it will take a long time to rebuild the Iraqi army after its recent collapse – and the only other US allies who are willing to die to stop ISIS are the Kurds.

Jordan will supply intelligence services. Turkey will make it harder for would-be jihadis to cross its borders with Syria and Iraq (the route by which most of ISIS’s foreign recruits have traveled), but it will not let the US use Turkish air bases for military operations. Egypt murmurs words of encouragement but makes no specific commitments.

Almost all the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait included, have promised to stop the large flow of donations from wealthy individuals to the various jihadi outfits in Syria (including, at least until recently, ISIS). The United Arab Emirates reportedly even offered to carry out air strikes against ISIS. But it’s hardly a mass mobilisation, and it doesn’t involve any “boots on the ground”.

There are plenty of boots available if Washington wants them, but they are on the wrong feet. The Syrian Army has been fighting the jihadis for almost three years now, and after its initial losses it has managed to hold its own against them everywhere except in eastern Syria. Elsewhere, it has actually been gaining back ground for more than a year now.

Then there is Iran, a big, industrialised country whose armed forces do know how to fight. Iran provided the key support for the local Shia militias that stopped ISIS from sweeping into Baghdad last summer, and it has been providing indispensable support to the Syrian government for years.
Finally, there are the “wrong” Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq can be part of the coalition, because they have their own self-governing region and are legitimate recipients of American military aid. But the Kurdish nationalist forces of northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, who have lots of combat experience and have been holding their own against ISIS, are classed as “terrorists” by Washington and so cannot be part of the gang.

But Washington has not asked these major players to join its new coalition. Indeed, it has invited everybody in the Middle East to join except those who are actually willing to fight ISIS on the ground. How peculiar.

There are reasons for this odd behaviour, of course. The obsessive American mistrust of Iran goes back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s, and is reinforced by Israel’s paranoia about Iran.

Turkey would go ballistic if the United States started arming the Kurdish rebels of the PKK, who have fought a long and brutal war (currently in remission) against the Turkish state. And it’s just too abrupt a U-turn for Obama to start doing business with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom he was getting ready to bomb just one year ago.

Maybe a rebuilt Iraqi army can drive ISIS out of Iraq eventually, although ISIS has lots of local support in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. But where does Obama think the troops will come from to drive ISIS back in its Syrian heartland?

His only answer is to build a new “Free Syrian Army” composed of “moderates” who will fight on two fronts, defeating ISIS while also overthrowing Assad. But that’s ridiculous, since the old FSA has almost all been absorbed into the various jihadi groups in Syria. There is nothing left to build on.

For added comic effect, this new Free Syrian Army will be trained in Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter and paymaster of those same jihadi groups until ISIS scared it into hedging its bets.

One is tempted to think that Obama is not really all that worried about ISIS as a strategic threat. One is further tempted to speculate that he has learned not to care too much about what happens in the Middle East any more. But those are subjects for another day.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 11 and 12.  (“Finally…gang”; and “There…ago”)

The Magnificent Kerry

4 February 2014

The Magnificent Kerry

By Gwynne Dyer

John Kerry has been US Secretary of State for precisely one year, and he has already 1) rescued President Obama from his ill-considered promse to bomb Syria if it crossed the “red line” and used poison gas; 2) opened serious negotiations with Iran on its alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons; and 3) taken on the job of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Getting Obama off the hook was useful, and may yet lead to the US ending its support for the insurgency in Syria, which at this point would probably be the least bad outcome. Opening negotiations with Iran was long overdue, and makes the nightmare prospect of an American or a joint US-Israeli air attack on Iran daily less likely. But even King Solomon and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), sitting jointly in judgement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could not broker a peace accord there.

Kerry is indefatigable. He has been to Israel/Palestine eleven times in the past year, and spent as much as a hundred hours face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or their close advisers. Unlike all the previous “brokers”, he has been astoundingly discreet: not a hint of what has been said in private has leaked into the public domain. And yet there is almost no hope of a real peace deal.

If persistence in the face of all the odds were enough, Kerry would be the man who finally made it happen. (Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon recently complained that his approach is “obsessive and messianic.”) But Kerry has no leverage: he has to rely on the desire of the two leaders to make the “peace process” work, and it just isn’t there; not, at least, on any terms that both would find acceptable.

The list of deal-breakers includes almost every topic under discussion: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, whether Jerusalem can be the joint capital of Israel and Palestine, whether Israel can maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes, and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise it as an explicitly Jewish state.

This last demand, which was only raised in the past couple of years, seems deliberately designed to be unacceptable to the Palestinians. Not only are they required to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state (which they have already done), but also to give their blessing to the ethnic and religious character of that state.

It is not normal in diplomacy for one state to comment upon the internal arrangements of another, let alone to give them its public support. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally and supporter, does not officially recognise it as a “Jewish state.” The Israeli demand is an attempt to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their defeat, and why would you set out to do that if you really wanted a deal?

The Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” however rooted in natural justice, is equally self-defeating in practice. Everybody knows that a peace deal must mean compensation for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, not a general right of return to what is now Israel, for that really would mean the end of the “Jewish state.” But no Palestinian leader has ever dared to say so out loud.

So why, then, has John Kerry embarked on his quixotic mission to make the “peace process” work? It has been effectively dead for at least a dozen years, although it remains unburied because the pretense that it is still alive allows everybody to avoid hard decisions. But Kerry, with his nine-month deadline to achieve a comprehensive “final-status agreement” (which expires in April), is taking it seriously.

His own explanation is lyrical but opaque: “I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” But the business about “making history” – that, perhaps, is sincere. Kerry has had a long and interesting career as a senator, and even took a shot at the presidency, but this is probably his last big job, and he wants to make his mark.

As the reality of what he is up against strikes home, he has scaled back his ambitions a good deal. For some months now he has been talking about a more modest “framework” deal by April that would establish a set of basic principles for further talks. Such deals commit nobody to anything, and are therefore a popular way of pretending to make progress, but he’ll be lucky to get even that.

The French general Pierre Bosquet, watching the suicidal charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854, said: “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It’s madness.”

Kerry’s foredoomed quest for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is magnificent too, in its own peculiar way, but it’s not diplomacy. It’s hubris.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It is…deal”; and “As the…that”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

 

2013 Year-Ender

26 December 2013

2013 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”

Former US president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week – “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished” – nobody laughed.

Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.

“You recognise that you’re going in blind…,” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.

The bloated American “security” industry and its political and military allies call him a traitor and claim that “everybody already knew that all governments spy,” but that is a shameless distortion of the truth. Almost nobody outside the industry knew the scale and reach of what was going on, nor did the US government and its faithful sidekick, the British government, want them to know.

As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.

US district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance programme “almost Orwellian”, and in a 68-page ruling declared that the indiscriminate collection of “metadata” by the government probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution (relating to unreasonable searches and seizures).

Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all: “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” The spooks’ stock response would be that they could have told him, but then they’d have to kill him. The truth is that they snooped on everybody just because they could. It’s called hubris.

This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.

“The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. “Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.” He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.

Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?

We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit: it didn’t always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.

Morsi had won with only 51.7 percent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who had made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.

Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn’t actually do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost, mainly because the economy was still a wreck. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.

Their little pantomime of non-violent protest lasted only two days before the army stepped in and removed Morsi from power. It subsequently murdered about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters in the streets of Cairo to consolidate its rule, while the men and women who had been the heroes of the 2011 revolution cheered the soldiers on. And now these “useful idiots” are joining Morsi and his supporters in the regime’s jails: the counter-revolution is complete.

But it gets weirder: in Thailand, for the past two months, non-violent protestors have been explicitly demanding the end of democracy. They are relatively privileged people, mostly from Bangkok and the south, who bitterly resent the fact that a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished rural majority in the north of Thailand.

Naturally, most of the poor vote for the Shinawatras, who win every time there is an election. In 2006, the rich party (“yellow shirts”) conspired with the army to remove the party of the poor (“red shirts”) in a coup, but as soon as there was an election the Shinawatras’ party returned to power. So now the “non-violent protests” have begun again, supported by the prosperous middle class of Bangkok, and this time they are demanding a non-elected “people’s council” made up (surprise!) of people like them.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded on 9 December by calling an election. But of course the “yellow shirts” don’t want an election, because they would lose it. They have declared a boycott of the vote, scheduled for February, and resumed their demonstrations. Democracy is their enemy, and non-violence is their weapon.

There was a point when it looked like the mass demonstrations in Ukraine that began in late November were heading in the same direction. The protests were originally against President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which was legitimate – and they did deter the president (who was under severe pressure from Moscow) from joining a Russian-led customs union instead.

So far, so good – but the opposition leaders have also been playing with the idea of using the demonstrations in Kiev as a way of forcing the elected president out of power. That has been done once before, in 2005, when the extra-constitutional action was justified by a rigged election, but there is no such justification this time – and it is unwise to make a habit of changing governments this way in a country that is so evenly divided between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east and the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking west.

The outcome is unclear in both Thailand and Ukraine, but non-violence can now also work for the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.

In March Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?

And in December a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil-fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan, but this war could end up with killing on a Rwandan scale.

The African continent is emphatically NOT at war, but the band of territory between the equator and about 15 degrees North is in very deep trouble. You can’t just blame all these wars on the fact that the dividing line between Muslims to the north and Christians to the south generally runs through this territory. Mali, after all, is almost entirely Muslim, and South Sudan contains very few Muslims. Maybe it’s just that these countries are all among the poorest in Africa, and the traditional social networks are collapsing under the strain.

The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world – except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.

The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.

As evidence of how little Washington wants to be drawn back into the Syrian mess, there is now an attempt underway to defuse the 34-year-old US-Iranian confrontation by negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, if Iran wants to go on supporting the Syrian regime with arms and money, Washington will not object very loudly.

So the war can go on indefinitely, and it has become a proxy Sunni-Shia war. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims. (Assad’s regime is drawn mainly from the 10-percent Alawite minority in Syria, which observes a deviant form of Shia Islam.)

And the risk grows that all this Sunni-Shia hostility could morph into something like Europe’s 16th-century wars of religion, with Sunni or Shia minorities rebelling in Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.

What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March.

The United States also fell off the “fiscal cliff” in March, but nobody was hurt. Xi Jinping took over as President of the People’s Republic of China for the next ten years (no election required), and “Curiosity”, the Mars rover, found evidence for running water in ancient times on the red planet. It was a busy month.

In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.

In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors. (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 percent to only 3.8 percent. But they probably feel better about it, so that’s all right.)

In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.

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To shorten to 1650 words, omit paragraphs 5 (“The bloated…reasons”); 7 and 8 (“US district…hubris”); 19-21 (“There was…Side”); 25 (“The African…strain”); 27 (“As evidence…loudly”); and 31 (“The United…month”).

A further cut to 1100 words can be achieved by omitting paragraphs 11-18 (“Now…weapon”)

 

Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid

25 November 2013

Iran and the US: Neither Blind Nor Stupid

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we are stupid,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry in response to fierce Israeli criticism after the first round of talks about Iran’s nuclear programme earlier this month failed to reach a deal. Now the deal is done, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is even harsher in his condemnation of Kerry’s handiwork.

“Israel has many friends and allies,” said Netanyahu, “but when they’re mistaken, it’s my duty to speak out….What was achieved last night in Geneva (24 November) is not a historic agreement, it was a historic mistake. Today the world has become a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon.”

What he meant was that the interim agreement implicitly recognises Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. But that right is already enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, and nobody ever thought that Iran was really going to renounce it. What was at issue was whether it would enrich its uranium to “weapons grade” – 90 percent pure – and make nuclear bombs.

The “Plan of Action” signed by Iran, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union ensures that it will not, at least for the next six months. All uranium enrichment above 5 percent is to be halted, and Iran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched material – the potential feedstock for a “dash” to weapons-grade material – is to be diluted or converted to a form not suitable for further enrichment.

Iran is not to install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich material), and large numbers of the existing banks of centrifuges are to be left inoperable. Even Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium ( for use in nuclear power reactors) is to remain the same between now and the end of the six-month period. And there will be no further work done on the Arak reactor, which might give Iran plutonium, and thus a second route to a nuclear bomb.

Iran will also allow more intrusive inspections by International Atomic Energy Agency officials, including daily access to the key enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordow. All it gets in return is $7 billion worth of relief (about $100 per Iranian) on the sanctions that are crippling its economy. All the main sanctions will stay in place until a final agreement has been signed – if it is – six months from now.

Iran can therefore make no further progress towards nuclear weapons while the detailed negotiations continue, if that is actually what Tehran ever had in mind. Yet Israeli officials are talking as if the United States has been both blind and stupid.

On Sunday, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said that “Israel cannot participate in the international celebration, which is based on Iranian deception and the world’s self-delusion.” And Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of trade and industry, warned: “If in five years a nuclear suitcase explodes in New York or Madrid, it will be because of the agreement that was signed this morning.”

This is so far over the top that you wonder whether the speakers even believe it themselves. Israel has talked itself into this obsession with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons project – Israeli sources have been warning that Iran is two years away from a bomb at regular intervals for the past twenty years – but the constant talk about it has also served to draw attention away from Israel’s settlement policy in the Palestinian territories.

Israel’s basic position is that the Iranian regime is entirely composed of evil terrorist fanatics who should never be allowed to have refined uranium of any sort. The only recourse is therefore to tighten the sanctions more and more until Iran’s entire economy and government crumble and a completely different sort of people emerge from somewhere to take over the country. No deal can be a good deal.

Israel’s leaders are dismayed that they can no longer keep their allies and friends pinned in this extreme position, but endlessly quoting the ravings of former Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is not enough. They would have to demonstrate that Iran actually intends to attack Israel, and they cannot. So eventually their allies just moved without them.

As Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid told “Time” magazine, “We’ve lost the world’s ear. We have six months, at the end of which we need to be in a situation in which the Americans listen to us the way they used to listen to us in the past.” But the game is not over yet. Israel’s influence in the US Congress is still immense, and its Congressional allies are already talking about heaping more sanctions on Iran (in order to kill the deal, though they don’t admit that).

President Obama could veto those new sanctions, of course, but he will find it a lot harder to get Congress to revoke the existing sanctions if the final deal is done six months from now. That’s why Iran gets so little relief from sanctions now in return for its concessions: Obama needs more time to work on Congress. But Israel may still win this tug-of-war.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Iran is…now”)