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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”)

Trump and Iran

“…One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.) The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room. And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.

There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below. If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way. Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.

Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies. Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.

Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree. Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal.

If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal. If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like. It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.

And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value. But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter? Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power. And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone. The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 8. (“If there…Iran”)

Coping with Trump

We have to face facts: there is no US federal government any more in the normal sense of the word. Social Security payments still get made and the 2.79 million federal civil servants still get paid, but there is no such thing as US government policy – especially foreign policy. Take the US defence secretary, former General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis.

Depite his nickname, Mattis is a rational human being who thinks that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a bad idea. He knows that it’s too late to stop North Korea from getting them, but he also knows that it is still possible to stop Iran from doing the same. In fact, the job is done: Iran signed an agreement in 2015 that takes the whole issue off the table for ten years.

Matts is well aware that his boss, President Donald Trump, regularly fulminates about how bad the Iranian ‘deal’ is and keeps hinting that he will cancel it – in which case, of course, Iran could go ahead and get nuclear weapons in just a year or two. So he put his own job at risk on Tuesday by telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States should keep its word and abide by the agreement with Iran.

Now he’s waiting for President Trump’s next tweet, which may well repudiate what he said. Trump won’t fire Mattis – he prefers to humiliate people in tweets until they quit – but his usefulness as secretary of defence is nearly at its end. Foreigners, including Iranians, know that Mattis is serious, but they also know that he does not speak for the president. Trump will do whatever he likes, so why bother even talking to Mattis?

It’s just the same with Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state (foreign secretary). On Sunday he said that the United States has “lines of commuunication” open to Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime.

The subtext was clear: don’t worry about a nuclear war, folks. We’re talking to them (or about to talk to them, or talking about talking to them), and there’s still time for a deal that defuses the whole crisis.

It’s not clear that that’s actually true, if the deal must include North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and missiles. Kim is well aware of what happened to other people who defied the United States but did not have nuclear weapons, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (dangling from the end of a rope) and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (a bayonet up the backside), so he is strongly motivated to hang onto his. But it is what Tillerson should say now, and it might help.

Trump didn’t wait 24 hours before he tweeted: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Like what? If negotiations are a waste of time, then the only alternative is force.

Does Trump mean he’s going to attack North Korea (whch would almost certainly involve the use of nuclear weapons)? Of course not. He doesn’t mean anything; he’s only venting, as usual. He has no idea what he’s going to do about North Korea, if anything. He doesn’t even know what he is going to think or say tomorrow.

The trouble is that Kim Jong-un probably doesn’t realise how aimless and inconsequential Trump’s tweets usually are. What Kim sees is most likely a death threat to him by the ruler of the most powerful nation on Earth. He has seen a dozen more messages like it in the past six months, and he must be looking frantically for a way out.

Talking to Tillerson might have shown him a way out, or at least bought him some time, but he’s definitely not going to talk to a diplomat who has been repudiated by his own president. As foreign secretary, Tillerson is toast.

There have been calls in Washington for Tillerson to resign to avoid further humiliation, but others hope he will swallow his pride and stay in office as long as he can to postpone the appointment of a super-hawk like John Bolton or Nikki Haley. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter very much either way, because they would find that the Boss is undermining and discrediting them too. It’s what he always does to his subordinates.

In the circumstances, it’s not surprising that America’s allies and its opponents are both coming to the conclusion that they will just have to ignore the US and make their deals wihout it. Iran, for instance, has said that it might stick by the nuclear deal if all the other signatories stay loyal to their commitments.

Trump is a problem, of course, but for all his threats and boasts he doesn’t actually do much. It could be a viable strategy for the next three years.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The subtext…help”

The First Bit of Kurdistan

The neighbours are very cross about Monday’s independence referendum in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is currently known as the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR). They can’t go on calling it that if and when it gets formal independence, and the leading candidate for the new name is “South Kurdistan”. Which is precisely what annoys the neighbours.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who governs the Arab majority (80 percent) of Iraq’s population, says he will impose an air blockade on the KAR if it doesn’t hand over control of its airports to Baghdad by Friday. Iran has already stopped direct flights to the Kurdish region, and Lebanon’s Middle East airlines will observe the ban from Friday.

The Iraqi prime minister also said that Baghdad will fight to prevent Kurdish secession, if necessary, and he has sent Iraqi troops to take part in joint exercises with the Turkish army on the KAR’s northern border. As for the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is enraged and warns that this “adventure” (the independence referendum) “can only have a dark end.”

Turkey is the great power of the region (80 million people and a big, modern economy), so Erdogan’s threats to shut off the pipeline that delivers Kurdish oil to the world and to stop exporting food to Iraqi Kurdistan have to be taken seriously. The KAR is landlocked, and Turkey is its main trading partner (about $10 billion of cross-border traffic a year).

Erdogan tried very hard to persuade Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, to call off the independence referendum. He accuses Barzani of “treachery” for going ahead with it anyway, and warns that “If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”

Most of us were under the impression that that war has already been underway for around five years, mainly in Syria, with Erdogan eagerly feeding the flames. But his interventions in Syria were just dabbling in other people’s problems; an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, he thinks, would be an existential threat to Turkey itself.

He may be right, because one-fifth of Turkey’s population is also Kurdish, and most of them live in the part of Turkey directly across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan. He is terrified that Turkey’s Kurds will catch the independence bug too, and he’s willing to take strong measures against Iraq’s Kurds to stop it.

That’s why the talk of “South Kurdistan” is so incendiary. Seen through this Kurdish nationalist prism, it is the first bit of a big, united Kurdistan: south-eastern Turkey is “North Kurdistan”, southwestern Iran is “East Kurdistan” and north-eastern Syria is “West Kurdistan.” The 30 million Kurds are one of the biggest stateless ethnic groups in the world, but giving them all a national state would require dismantling Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

That’s why it has never happened, although the Kurds were first promised a state of their own when the Western powers were planning the carve-up of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. The Kurds have been seeking it ever since, but everybody else always lines up against them.

Iran has just said that it too will close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan is confident that Turkey can bring it to its knees: “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all their revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” he said this week.

The United States is preparing to abandon its Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria, although they have done much of the fighting against ISIS, because it doesn’t want borders to start to move in a region that is already turbulent enough. The Kurds haven’t got a friend in the world, and it is an old international tradition to use them and then betray them.

So why did Barzani hold the independence referendum now? Preliminary results suggest that it was hugely successful at home – a 91 percent “yes” vote on a 72 percent turn-out – but there’s going to be a big, ugly backlash from the neighbours. There could even be a war, and the likelihood that anybody will actually recognise South Kurdistan’s independence is minimal.

Barzani’s motives are partly personal: he must step down before the elections scheduled for November, and he wants to stamp his own name on the independence project. But many Kurds would argue that there will never be a “good” time to go for independence, and that they must just push on and hope for the best. After a hundred years of oppression and division, you can see their point.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The United…them”)