9 October 2013
Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…
By Gwynne Dyer
The media spotlight on the Arab world shifts focus almost every month: counter-revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, an American raid in Libya… It rarely stays on Iraq for long, because the violence there has been going on so long that it has become part of the scenery. But just be patient a little longer.
Five months ago, a British fraudster called James McCormick was jailed for ten years for selling novelty hand-held golf-ball detectors (cost $20) to the Iraqi government as bomb detectors (cost $40,000). Yet the Iraqi security services are still using the preposterous devices, which don’t even have a power source. This tells you all you need to know about the situation in the country
It’s not because the Iraqis are unaware of the problem. McCormick allegedly received $75 million from the Iraqi government for the useless toys, and at least a third of that amount would have gone as kickbacks to the government officials who signed off on the deal. That much lolly was bound to attract the jealousy of rival government officials, and so there has indeed been an Iraqi investigation into the deal.
Three local culprits, including Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Defence Ministry’s directorate of combat explosives, even went to jail over the crime. (They were probably insufficiently generous in sharing their good fortune with other high office-holders.) But as late as last May Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still insisting that the “ADE-651” golf-ball detectors were effective – and they are still in widespread use today.
This is beyond bizarre, because Iraq is currently losing about a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. True, five times as many people are being killed each month in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, but civil wars always kill many more people than mere terrorism.
The fear now is that Iraq is drifting towards a sectarian civil war as well. Maliki’s government, which is dominated by politicians from the Shia majority of the Arab population, effectively controls only about half the country. The Kurds, who would really rather be independent, control the north, and have little interest in inter-Arab disputes. And the Sunni Arabs deeply resent being under Shia rule.
There has been a revolution in Iraq in the past decade, although it was not the democratic one that the American invaders thought they were bringing. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they also ended many centuries of domination by the Sunni Arab minority. Now it’s Shia Arabs who rule the roost, and the Sunnis are largely frozen out of the government, the army, and the civil service.
That may be even more important in alienating the Sunni community from the post-American settlement than the constant arrests and torture of Sunnis suspected of anti-government activity. Unemployment in Iraq is 30 percent, and half the jobs that do exist are in the gift of the government. They almost all go to Shias, and the Sunnis have fallen on very hard times.
Mass Sunni protests began almost a year ago, and until last April they were almost entirely non-violent. Sunni terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda-related jihadist organisations – another by-product of the American occupation – were killing about 300 Shias a month, but they had little support in the broader Sunni community.
Then in April the Iraqi (i.e. Shia) army raided a peaceful protest camp in Hawijah, killing about 50 Sunnis, and suddenly the violent minority of Sunni jihadists came to be seen as defenders of Sunni rights. In May the death toll from terrorism leaped to 700. By June it was almost a thousand, and by now some of them were Sunnis killed by Shia counter-terrorists. July, August and September have each brought about a thousand more victims.
This is heading back towards a civil war on the scale of what happened in Iraq in 2006-2007, under the American occupation, when some 3,000 people were being killed each month, and the government is doing nothing effective to stop it. But then, the government does nothing effective in any domain.
The Iraq government gets $100 billion a year in oil revenue, but nothing gets built or maintained or repaired. Most people live in poverty, while the bulk of the oil income goes on salaries for government employees, a large majority of whom either don’t show up for work at all, or fail to do any useful work when they get there. The rest of the money is simply stolen by the government’s own senior officials.
The fake bomb detectors are part of that vast haemorrhage of cash, and one possible reason that they have not been replaced yet is that some people will obviously make a lot of money out of the contract for whatever replaces them. Until the question of which people has been decided, nothing will be done.
The soldiers and police using them in the streets don’t mind. If they should find a bomb in a car, the suicide bomber driving it will almost detonate the explosives and kill them. So a bomb detector that doesn’t detect bombs is just fine with them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“There has…hard times”)
1 September 2013
Syria: The Pretext and the Real Target
By Gwynne Dyer
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” – so the British parliament decided that it didn’t want to be shamed by following another prime minister into another unwinnable war on the basis, yet again, of shoddy intelligence reports. It voted 282-275 against committing British forces to the planned American attack on Syria.
After the vote on 29 August, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that former prime minister Tony Blair had “poisoned the well” by leading Britain into the Iraq war in 2003 on the basis of false intelligence reports about Iraq’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction”. That was why neither the public nor even some members of Cameron’s own party now trusted his assertions on Syrian “WMD”. “I get it,” Cameron said, and promised Britain would stay out of the coming war.
On the next day, US President Barack Obama followed the British government’s example by announcing that he would seek the approval of Congress before launching strikes on Syria. He still felt that the Syrian regime should be punished for using poison gas, he said, but it turns out that the operation is not “time-sensitive” after all. Everything can wait until the US Congress resumes sitting on 9 September.
This came as a great surprise to many people, but it shouldn’t have. Obama is probably secretly grateful to Britain for pulling out, because it has given him an excuse to postpone the attack – maybe even to cancel it, in the end. He foolishly painted himself into a corner with his tongue last year by talking about a “red line” that he would never allow the Assad regime in Syria to cross, but he wasn’t elected to be policeman of the world.
That was the role George W Bush tried to play, but American voters want no more of the wars that come with it. Obama got US troops out of Iraq, and they’ll soon be out of Afghanistan as well. He doesn’t want to end up fighting a war in Syria, and that will be hard to avoid that if he starts bombing. “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next,” wrote General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only one month ago. “Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.”
Retired General Anthony Zinni, former US commander in the Middle East, expanded on that with brutal clarity. “The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant. If you do a one-and-done (a few days’ punitive air strikes with Tomahawk cruise missiles) and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”
Obama’s problem is that he has fallen into the clutches of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which has enduring purposes and prejudices that usually overpower the particular views and wishes of passing presidents and Congresses. Consider its six-decade loathing of Cuba and its 35-year vendetta against Iran. (It hates to be successfully defied.)
This establishment has no problems with weapons of mass destruction so long as they are on its side. It has never renounced the right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, although they are a hundred times deadlier than poison gas. It didn’t even mind the Shah of Iran working to get them, back when he was Washington’s designated enforcer in the Middle East. But it has never forgiven the Iranians for overthrowing the Shah.
Washington then switched to backing its new ally, Saddam Hussein, who used poison gas extensively in his war against Iran in 1980-88. US Air Force intelligence officers helped Saddam to plan his gas attacks on Iran’s trenches, and the Central Intelligence Agency tried to pin the blame for Saddam’s use of gas against the Kurds on Iran instead. Now Saddam is gone and Iraq is Iran’s ally (thanks to George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003). But Iran is still the main enemy, and the game goes on.
Syria is Iran’s ally, so Washington has always seen the regime in Damascus as an enemy too. Over a thousand Egyptians murdered in the streets of Cairo by the army that overthrew the elected government last month is no cause for US intervention, because Egypt is an ally. Over a thousand Syrians killed in the streets of Damascus by poison gas requires an American military response, because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is the enemy.
Assad’s regime must not be destroyed, because then al-Qaeda might inherit power in Syria. But it must be whacked quite hard, so that it dumps Assad – and with him, perhaps, the alliance with Iran. The gas is a pretext, not the real motive for the promised strikes.
Obama doubts that this will work, and rightly fears that even a “limited” American attack on Syria could end up as a full-scale war. The events in London have won him some time, and “letting Congress decide” is his best chance to escape from his dilemma. What could possibly go wrong?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“After…war”; and “Retired…in”)
25 August 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
A dilemma is by its very nature a choice between evils, and that is what now faces other countries over the use of poison gas in Syria. All the options may be “on the table”, but none of them are good.
Nobody denies that poison gas was used in rebel-held parts of Damascus on 21 August, not even the Syrian government. Medecins Sans Frontieres says 3,600 patients with symptoms of poisoning were treated at three hospitals it supports in Damascus after the attack, and that at least 355 of them died. The real total may be as high as 1,000 dead. That’s a whole week’s normal death toll in the Syrian civil war in just one day.
After that, however, we run out of facts. The rebels claim that the Baathist regime was responsible, while the Syrian government says that the rebels did it themselves in the hope of triggering foreign military intervention. Sending United Nations inspectors will not settle that argument: if nerve gas was actually used, it must have come from government stocks, but that doesn’t mean that the regime did it.
Everybody knows that the Syrian military have stocks of poison gas, but what’s happening in Syria is a civil war. The rebels have not overrun any of the known storage sites for Syrian chemical weapons, but they could have secret supporters inside those sites who smuggled some out to them.
If you apply the old test of “who benefits?”, the rebels, who are currently losing ground, have a strong incentive to get the Assad regime blamed for using illegal weapons. If that gets the United States and other Western powers to impose a no-fly zone, or bomb the regime’s military bases, it helps the rebel cause. So maybe they acted to provide the necessary “evidence”: some of them are certainly ruthless enough.
It’s easier to imagine the regime using chemical weapons: it’s just as ruthless, and it actually owns them. But it is manifestly not to its advantage to do so. President Bashar al-Assad’s troops are winning the war without them, and the last thing he needs is foreign military intervention. Using chemical weapons could lead to just such an outcome, and it would be exceptionally stupid for the regime to do so.
On the other hand, armies and regimes have done exceptionally stupid things in the past, particularly when they are isolated and under great pressure. The emerging consensus among Western governments, at any rate, is that Assad was responsible. So what to do about it?
France has already called for the use of force, and the United States and Britain seem to be teetering on the brink: after a 40-minute phone call last Saturday President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron agreed that “a significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response.” But that is about the least they could say, in the circumstances.
Earlier in the week, Obama warned publicly that people who “call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, (and) can…actually breed more resentment in the region.” If you liked America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is saying, you’ll just love the one in Syria – and he knows the American public is not up for it.
US military intervention is unlikely to lead to the outcome American foreign policy really desires: the preservation of Syria’s existing secular state, with a change of leadership at the top. If Assad is overthrown, he’ll probably pull the whole edifice down with him. If the rebels win, it’s almost certainly the Islamist radicals who will take over. So if a military intervention is practically bound to end in tears, then why not just skip it?
Because chemical weapons are classed as “weapons of mass destruction”, and there is an international treaty banning their use. If you let Assad get away with this, goes the argument, he will have breached an important international taboo on the use of WMD. Well, not really.
Biological weapons (“germ warfare”) are truly horrifying weapons of mass destruction, banned by treaty, and nobody has ever used them. Nuclear weapons can kill by the billions; they have never been banned, but they haven’t been used in war for 68 years now. Poison gas, however, is not really a weapon of mass destruction at all.
When gas was used in the First World War, it was always about capturing the next line of trenches. After that war it was banned, but it has been used a few times since: Italy used gas in Ethiopia in 1935; Japan used it against China in 1938; Yemen used it against rebels in the 1960s; and Iraq used it against Iran and Kurdish rebels in the 1980s. In no case did the casualties reach “mass destruction” levels.
Napalm, fuel-air explosives and cluster bombs are just as nasty as poison gas, and perfectly legal. The historic ban on poison gas is a valuable deterrent, but it has survived some previous breaches, and preventing this one is not worth a war. Especially if it is, from the point of view of the potential interveners, an unwinnable war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Earlier…for it”; and “When…levels”)
18 August 2013
Egypt: The Futility of Foreign Intervention
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s a silly question, obviously, but it still has to be asked. What, if anything, should the rest of the world do about the tragedy in Egypt? The same question has been hanging in the air about the even greater Syrian tragedy for well over a year now, and it is starting to come up again in Iraq as well.
All three of the biggest countries in the heart of the Arab world are now in a state of actual or incipient civil war. The death toll in the Syria civil war last month was 4,400 people. More than 1,000 people were killed by bombs and bullets last month in Iraq, the bloodiest month in the past five years. And at least 1,000 people have been killed in Egypt in the past week, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians murdered by the army.
You will note that I did not write “killed in clashes.” That’s the sort of weasel-word formula that the media use when they do not want to offend powerful friends. Let’s be plain: the Egyptian army is deliberately massacring supporters of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government that it overthrew last June (whom it now brands as “terrorists”) in order to terrorise them into submission.
The “deep state” is coming back in Egypt, and the useful idiots who now believe that the army is on their side, the secular democrats of the left and the opportunistic Noor Party on the religious right, will in due course find themselves back in the same old police stations, being tortured by the same old goons. So should outsiders just stand by and watch it all happen?
What are the alternatives? Well, President Barack Obama told the generals off in no uncertain terms after the biggest massacre on 14 August. “We appreciate the complexity of the situation,” he said sternly. “We recognise that change takes time,” he added, his anger mounting steadily. “There are going to be false starts and difficult days,” he said, almost shaking with rage.
“We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years but sometimes in generations,” he concluded, “but our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.” And with that, he cancelled the Bright Star joint US-Egyptian military exercise that was scheduled for September. The Egyptian generals must have been trembling in their boots.
Just in case they weren’t, Obama added that “I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the (Egyptian) interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship.” Curiously, the Egyptian generals did not stop killing people upon hearing all this.
The inaction of the United States is due to two causes. First, the only major leverage at Barack Obama’s disposal, cancelling the annual $1.3 billion in aid that Washington gives to the Egyptian army, is no threat at all. It would instantly be replaced, and probably increased, by the rich and conservative Arab monarchies of the Gulf that heartily approve of the Egyptian army’s coup.
Secondly, Washington remains transfixed by the notion that its alliance with Egypt is important for American security. This hoary myth dates back to the long-gone days when the US depended heavily on importing oil from the Gulf, and almost all of it had to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Today less than ten percent of the oil burned in America comes from the Middle East, and new domestic production from fracking is shrinking that share even further.
Even if Obama understood that Egypt is not a vital American strategic interest and ended US military aid to the country, it would only be a gesture (although a desirable one). The International Monetary Fund has already broken off talks on a large new loan to Egypt, and the European Union is talking about cutting aid to the country, but there are no decisive measures available to anybody outside the Arab world, and no willingness to act within it.
There will be no major military intervention in Syria either, although outside countries both within the Arab world and beyond it will continue to drip-feed supplies to their preferred side. And the Iraqi government’s request last Friday for renewed US military aid to stave off renewed civil war there has no hope of success. Getting involved again militarily in Iraq would be political suicide for Obama.
So what’s left of the Arab spring? On the face of it, not much. Tunisia, where the first democratic revolution started three years ago, still totters forward, and there is more democracy in Morocco than there used to be, but that’s about it. The non-violent democratic revolutions that have worked so well in many other parts of the world are not doing very well in the Arab world.
There may be many reasons for this, but one stands out above all the others. In the Arab world, unlike most other places, two rival solutions to the existing autocracy, poverty and oppression compete for popular support: democracy and Islamism. The result, in one country after another, is that the autocrats exploit that division to retain or regain power. Democracy may win in the end, but it is going to be a very long struggle.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 7. (“What…all this”)