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The Middle East: Not Enough Wars Yet

“When all the Arabs and the Israelis agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last month. So we’re paying attention now, and we even know where the next war will start: Lebanon.

That seems unfair, as Lebanon’s last civil war lasted fifteen years, killed around 200,000 people (out of a population of only 4 million), and only ended in 1990. Couldn’t they hold this one somewhere else? Unfortunately, no. All the other venues are taken.

Iraq is still fully booked. The fight against ISIS is almost over, but the struggle between the Arabs and the Kurds has only just got started again. It never really stops for long.

Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the Russians, and Shia volunteers from Iran and Lebanon are winning the war in Syria, but it will be at least another year before they suppress all rebel resistance.

Yemen’s airspace is too congested, with Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Jordanian and Egyptian planes bombing the living daylights out of the Houthi rebels who hold most of the country (and anybody else who happens to be nearby). No real room for another war there.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel want to take Iran down a peg or two, and their efforts to get the United States to do it for them have not yet succeeded. Trump is not opposed in principle, but his current obsession is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

So the war will have to be in Lebanon, at least at the start. The big Shia militia that controls southern Lebanon, Hezbollah, is closely allied to Shia Iran, and it’s a permanent nuisance along Israel’s northern border, so it’s a suitable place to start rolling back Iran’s influence in the region.

Lebanon is a particularly good choice from Saudi Arabia’s point of view because it’s the Israelis who would have to do the actual fighting there. (Saudi Arabia does not share a border with Lebanon.) But if Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is really serious about curbing Iran’s power, his own troops are eventually going to have to take on the job of cleansing Syria of Iranian influence.

You only have to say that sentence aloud to realise that this project is going to end in tears for the Saudis, the Israelis and (if they get sucked into it) the Americans. There is no way that the inexperienced Saudi army is going to drive battle-hardened Hezbollah and Iranian militia troops out of Syria.

Actually, there is no way that the Israeli army is going to drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon either. In Israel’s last war with the organisation in 2006, Hezbollah’s troops fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon. The Israeli air force smashed up Lebanon’s infrastructure, but Israel ended up accepting a ceasefire with Hezbollah and withdrawing its troops in a hurry.

Sunni Arab leaders and Israel’s prime minister have talked themselves into the paranoid delusion that Iran has a grand plan to establish its domination over the whole region and must be stopped by force of arms.

First Iran established close links with the Shia political parties and militias that now dominate Iraq. Then it crossed Iraqi territory to save the Shia ruler of Syria from a revolt by the Sunni majority in that country. Next was distant Yemen, where the Shia tribes of the north, the Houthi, overran most of the country with Iranian help. And now the Shia militia Hezbollah has gained a powerful position in the government of Lebanon.

If the Sunnis don’t stop the Iranians now, they’ll all be enslaved. Or something of that sort.

Nonsense. It was George W. Bush who overthrew the centuries-long rule of the Sunni minority in Iraq on the lying pretext that Saddam Hussein was developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Shias took power in Iraq in a free election, and as the only Shia-majority country in the Arab world they naturally sought a close relationship with Shia Iran.

This made it easy for Iranian volunteers and weapons to move across Iraq and help Bashar al-Assad resist an assault on his rule by Sunni extremists. The Hezbollah militia, which represents the large Shia minority in Lebanon, also went to Assad’s help, but you can hardly portray this as Shia expansionism.

There is absolutely no evidence that the Houthis in Yemen are getting any material assistance from Iran. They are not even Iranian “proxies” in any meaningful sense of the word. They are Yemeni tribes who happen to be Shia, engaged in a typical Yemeni tribal power struggle.

A great many people will die for nothing if the full-scale Sunni-Shia war that Saudi Arabia (and Netanyahu) currently envisage actually gets going. But Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation a week ago, in which he denounced Hezbollah’s presence in the government – delivered not at home but in Saudi Arabia – may have been the starting gun for the war.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“Both…Jong-un”; and “There is…struggle”)

Trump: the Reagan Gambit?

Last Sunday I wrote a piece on the political crisis in Venezuela. Then on Wednesday I wrote an article on Donald Trump’s hyperbolic language about North Korea. But it never occurred to me that the next article would be about Trump, North Korea AND Venezuela. I forgot about the Reagan Gambit.

In October, 1983, US President Ronald Reagan had a little problem. A massive truck-bomb had killed 241 American Marines in their barracks at Beirut airport. That was more than a quarter of the total American force deployed as “peacekeepers” to Lebanon – a deployment that had already become controversial in the United States. So Reagan had some explaining to do.

In another part of the world entirely, the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada, pop. 90,000, had another military coup – a coup within the coup. A radical pro-Cuban politician called Maurice Bishop,who had overthrown the elected government, was executed by his fellow revolutionaries over some minor differences of opinion. A pity, perhaps, but of no more importance to the rest of the world than Grenada itself.

The Cold War was running quite hot in this period, so although the island had no strategic value the American right was getting upset about Russians and Cubans building an airport on Grenada. In the normal course of events this would probably not have led to an American invasion, but Reagan badly needed a political distraction.

On 25 October, precisely two days after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the US military began a full-scale invasion of Grenada on Reagan’s orders. It was one of history’s most one-sided battles – only 19 Americans killed, although the US handed out 5,000 medals for merit and valour – but it did the trick.

A friend said to me at the time that Reagan had gone home and kicked the cat, which was true enough, but conquering Grenada didn’t just make him feel better. There’s only room for one lead story at a time, and Grenada pushed Beirut aside in the US media. When Reagan quietly pulled the remaining Marines out of Lebanon four months later, few people even remembered to ask what those other Marines had died for.

And now Donald Trump, stumbling deeper each day into an confrontation with North Korea over nuclear-armed ICBMs he swore that Pyongyang would never get, may be looking for a way out. So on Sunday, he said: “We have many options for Venezuela – and by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option.”

He said it although nobody had asked him if he was planning to invade Venezuela. (It hadn’t occurred to anybody that he might.) And he said it from his golf course in New Jersey. (Reagan made his Grenada decision on a golf course too). And it certainly did take North Korea out of the news for at least one or two cycles.

He then offered a classic Trumpian non-justification for threatening to use military force in Venezuela: “This is our neighbor. You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

So be on your best behaviour, all you other governments in Latin America and Canada, or he might come for you too. But is he actually planning to invade Venezuela, a fairly well-armed country of 30 million people?

Trump has already given President Nicolas Maduro’s beleaguered regime a propaganda gift by strengthening its argument that its opponents are all traitors and American spies. Does he realise that an American invasion of Venezuela would trigger both a bloody civil war and a prolonged anti-American resistance movement?

Probably not. He knows that Venezuela is a superpower in the “Miss Universe” universe, but he will not have read the full briefing paper unless they remembered to put his name in every paragraph (and he may have caught onto that trick by now).

It would be nice if this threat about Venezuela were evidence that Trump knows he is in over his head with North Korea and is looking for a face-saving way out, but it’s not likely to be true. It’s much more likely to be just another example to his scattershot approach to dealing with a problem: create as many other problems as possible, and the pressure will come off.

Ronald Reagan knew he had walked into a hornet’s nest in Lebanon, and just needed
to create a diversion while he found a way of getting American troops out of the Middle East. It’s not clear that Trump even understands that he is in deep trouble, and that he is at risk of starting a nuclear war in order to prevent one.

Stream-of-consciousness decision-making is unfailingly interesting, if you are using “interesting” in the sense of the faux-Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” But in real life, that’s the last place you want to live.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“He then…people”)

Israel Takes Sides

7 May 2013

Israel Takes Sides

By Gwynne Dyer

After making two major air strikes in and near Damascus in three days, Israel informed the Assad regime on Monday that it is not taking sides in the Syrian civil war. But of course it is.

The Syrian government promptly claimed that these Israeli attacks proved what it had been saying all along: that the “armed terrorist groups” that are trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime (i.e. the anti-regime fighters of the Free Syrian Army) are really the tools of a demonic alliance between Israel, the United States, conservative Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the Sunni Islamist fanatics of al-Qaeda.

That is just as ridiculous as it sounds, but there were always a few little bits of truth in the Syrian regime’s story, and they are gradually getting bigger. It’s true that the Free Syrian Army is getting money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and that the United States supports it diplomatically. So do almost all other NATO members

It’s true that the al-Nusra brigades, the most effective fighting force in the Free Syrian Army, are made up of Islamist extremists whose leaders claim to have ties with al-Qaeda – and that this has not stopped the Arab Gulf states and the United States from supporting the FSA.

And it’s true that Israel is now attacking military targets on Syrian territory. It insists that those targets are actually advanced missiles and anti-aircraft weapons that Syria is planning to deliver to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and that may also be true. Hezbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon in 2006, and Israel is anxious about what it could accomplish with better weapons.

But even if Israel’s main worry is that advanced weapons would reach Hezbollah, the air strikes took place on Syrian territory, and the Syrian regime claims that 42 officers and soldiers of its army were killed in them. At the very least, Israel no longer feels that preserving the hostile but stable relations that prevailed for so long between Tel Aviv and Damascus is a high priority.

Maybe this is just because it now assumes that Assad is a goner anyway, so there’s no point in worrying about whether he will be overthrown, even if what follows may be an Islamist regime that is even more hostile to Israel. Or maybe the Israelis believe that Assad will really accept that there is a difference between killing Syrian troops who are guarding weapons that may be shipped to Hezbollah, and killing other Syrian soldiers who are not.

They certainly hope that he’ll accept it. Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio on Monday that the Netanyahu government aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime”. (Israel does not officially admit that it carried out the strikes, so it could not make an official statement about its motives for them.)

The Assad regime said that the attacks were tantamount to a “declaration of war”, and that is true. It’s not that the Israelis have decided that Assad must go. It’s rather that they have looked down the road, seen a Sunni-Shia war looming in the eastern Arab world – and decided, rationally enough, that they have to be on the Sunni side.

That war is already underway in Syria, where men from the majority Sunni Muslim community are the main fighters in a revolt against a regime controlled by Shias of the Alawite sect. The same sort of war may be re-starting in Iraq, where the Shia majority who dominate the government have already fought one civil war with the Sunni minority in 2005-07.

Those two Sunni-Shia wars might then coalesce and spread to Lebanon, where the Shias of Hezbollah are at odds with the Sunni Muslim and Christian communities. Weapons, money, and maybe direct military aid would come from Shia Iran to one side and from the Sunni countries to the south (Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states) to the other. In such a war, Israel would certainly prefer a Sunni victory.

It has no desire to take an active part in a Sunni-Shia war, nor would its intervention be welcomed by either side. It worries that radical Islamist regimes might come to power in Syria, in the western part of Iraq, and even in Lebanon if the Sunnis won such a war. But Israel is at peace with its Sunni southern neighbours, while the Shia regimes to its north in Syria and Iraq and the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon are all its sworn enemies.

If it comes to an all-out struggle, Israel knows which side it wants to win. And in the meantime, it already feels a lot freer to take direct military action against the Syrian regime and Hezbollah if it thinks its interests are threatened.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Maybe…them”)



Assad Chooses Civil War

29 May 2012

Assad Chooses Civil War

By Gwynne Dyer

“There is no doubt that the (Syrian) government used artillery and tanks (in Houla),” said Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday – but then he added: “There is also no doubt that many bodies have been found with injuries from firearms received at point-blank range. We are dealing with a situation where both sides participated in the killings of innocent civilians.”

Russia is at last admitting that Syria is using heavy weapons against its own civilian population. It could hardly do less, given the scale of Saturday’s massacre in the village of Taldou in the Houla region: at least 108 civilians killed, including 49 children. But while other countries are expelling Syrian ambassadors, Lavrov is still trying to spread the blame in order to protect Bashir al-Assad’s regime from foreign intervention.

While some of the victims in Houla were killed by shellfire, others had been shot at close range or knifed to death. Assad’s propagandists insist that the fighters of the Syrian opposition (the “armed terrorist gangs,” as the regime calls them) massacred their own people with rifles and knives in order to put the blame on the government, and Russia is actively promoting the same story. But it is nonsense, and Lavrov must know it.

The testimony of eyewitnesses is consistent: after two hours of shelling by the Syrian army, armed men belonging to the pro-government Shabiha militia entered the village and went door to door killing suspected activists and their families. The government in Damascus doesn’t care that everybody knows it’s lying: the whole point of the massacre is to terrify Syrians into submission, and it knows that NATO will not intervene.

The victims murdered in Houla last weekend are only one percent of the Syrian citizens killed by their own government since the anti-regime protests began in March of last year, but some people hope that this will be a turning point in foreign attitudes to Assad. They even talk about it as a “mini-Srbrenica”.

That was the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in 1995 that finally persuaded the NATO countries to use force against Slobodan Milosevic, the dictator of Serbia, but it’s not going to happen here. The brazen effrontery of the Assad regime in perpetrating such a massacre even after United Nations/Arab League monitors have entered the country shows how confident it is that the Western alliance will not use force against him.

NATO will not go beyond empty threats because it cannot get the support of the United Nations Security Council for using force against Assad’s regime (the Russians and the Chinese would veto it), and because the Syrian armed forces are so big and powerful that it would suffer significant losses if it attacked.

If there is no foreign military intervention, then Syria is heading into a prolonged civil war like Lebanon’s in 1975-1990: the ethnic and religious divisions in Syria are quite similar to those in Lebanon. If the Syrian regime understands that, then why does it persist in killing the protesters? Because it reckons that fighting a prolonged civil war is better than losing power now.

The pro-democracy protests in Syria began soon after the triumph of the Egyptian revolution in February, 2011, and for six months they remained entirely non-violent despite savage repression by the regime. (By last September, Assad’s forces had already murdered about 3,000 Syrian civilians.) And so long as the demonstrations stayed non-violent, the vision of a Syrian democracy embracing all sects and ethnic groups remained viable.

Assad’s strategy for survival had two main thrusts. One was to divide the opposition. At the start the protests included Christians, Druze, and even some people from Assad’s own community, the Alawites. He needed to separate those minority groups from the majority of the protesters, the Sunni Muslims who make up 70 percent of Syria’s population.

His other goal was to lure the protesters into using force, because that would license his own army to use far greater force against them. Eventually, in October/November, deserters from the Syrian army (who took their weapons with them) began shooting back at Assad’s troops, and he had his pretext. After that, he was free to use artillery against city centres, slaughter whole villages, whatever he liked.

The shift to open warfare also had the effect of frightening most Christians, Druze and Alawites back into the regime’s camp. They bought the regime’s lies about the resistance being run by Sunni Islamist fanatics with al-Qaeda connections (although it is nothing of the sort), and decided that even Assad and his henchmen were better than a democracy that brought vengeful Sunni Muslims to power.

So Assad now has about 30 percent of the population on his side, plus most of the army, all of the heavy weapons, and the world’s nastiest intelligence services. That’s enough to fight a long civil war, and maybe even enough to win it.

Russia and China will guard Assad’s diplomatic flank, and the other Arab states will do nothing beyond sending some money and a few weapons to the rebels. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan is a dead letter, and NATO will not intervene militarily. Civil war is Assad’s best option for survival, and he’s not stupid.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The victims…against him”)