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Qatar Showdown??

The deadline that Saudi Arabia and its allies set for Qatar to submit to their “non-negotiable” demands has just postponed from Monday to Wednesday. Since Qatar has already made it plain that it will not comply – it says the demands are “reminiscent of the extreme and punitive conduct of ‘bully’ states that have historically resulted in war” – the delay is a sure sign that the bullies don’t know what to do next.

They presumably thought that the Qataris would buckle under their threat, and didn’t bother to work out their next move if it didn’t. So what happens now? Does Saudi Arabia invade Qatar? It could easily do so if it wanted to: Qatar has one-tenth of Saudi Arabia’s population, an undefended land border, and tiny armed forces.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has the support of Donald Trump in his blockade of Qatar, and he could probably talk Trump into accepting an invasion too. Moreover, this is the man who committed Saudi Arabian forces to the vicious civil war in Yemen on the mere (and largely unfounded) suspicion that Iran is helping the rebels militarily.

Bin Salman’s terms for ending the blockade of Qatar were so harsh that it looks like he wanted them to be rejected. The thirteen demands included completely shutting down the Qatar-based al-Jazeera media group, whose satellite-based television network is the least censored and most trusted news organisation in the Arab world.

Qatar was to break all contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, a largely non-violent and pro-democratic Islamic movement that was a leading force in the “Arab Spring” of 2010-11. It was to end all support for radical Islamist rebel groups in Syria, and above all for the organisation that was called the Nusra Front until late last year. (It then changed its name in an attempt to hide its ties to al-Qaeda.)

Qatar was to hand over all individuals who have been accused of “terrorism” (a very broad term in the four countries operating the blockade). It would have to expel all the citizens of these countries who currently live in Qatar (presumably to stop them from being contaminated by the relatively liberal political and social environment there).

Finally, Qatar was to end practically all trade and diplomatic contact with Iran, even though its income comes almost entirely from the huge gas field it shares with Iran. Oh, and it must pay compensation for the nuisance it has caused, and accept regular monitoring of its compliance with these terms for the next ten years.

The four countries operating the blockade (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahradi and Egypt – three absolute monarchies and one military dictatorship) are really just trying to suppress democratic ideas in the region. The accusation that Qatar is “supporting terrorism” would be more convincing if Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had not been doing exactly the same thing.

They all helped the Nusra Front with money, and ignored its ties with al-Qaeda because it was fighting the Shia-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now they have all stopped doing that, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE are condemning Qatar for doing it: the pot is calling the kettle black. But the “supporting terrorism” charge does get the Americans (or at least one ill-informed American called Donald Trump) on board.

Qatar will pay a price for rejecting the Saudi demands. Almost all its food is imported, and in future it will all have to come in by sea or by air. But Qatar is rich enough to pay that price.

In the end Saudi Arabia will almost certainly not invade. The 10,000 American troops based in Qatar give it no political protection (Washington will always put Saudi Arabia first), but the mere hundred-odd Turkish troops who are based there would help to defend the country if Qatar chose to resist.

“We don’t need permission from anyone to establish military bases among partners,” said Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We endorse and appreciate Qatar’s stand towards the 13 demands.” Saudi Arabia won’t risk even a small war with Turkey, so it will restrict itself to using its financial clout to stop other countries from trading with Qatar.

As Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, told the Guardian newspaper last week: “One possibility would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and say that if you want to work with us then you have got to make a commercial choice (to boycott Qatar).”

But that’s not likely to work either. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has started another fight he can’t finish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Qatar was to hand…there”)

Climate Talks: Coasting Towards Disaster

9 December 2012

Climate Talks: Coasting Towards Disaster

By Gwynne Dyer

They made some progress at the annual December round of the international negotiations on controlling climate change, held this year in Qatar. They agreed that the countries that cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the most from it. The principle, known as the Loss and Damage mechanism, has no numbers attached to it, but it’s a step forward. The only step forward, unfortunately.

In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on “mitigation”; that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”. That made good sense, but they didn’t get anywhere. Fifteen years later, emissions are still rising, not falling.

So gradually the emphasis shifted to “adaptation”. If we can’t agree on measures to stop the average global temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What’s the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and high temperatures that are coming? What’s the plan for coping with massive floods that drown river valleys and inundate coastlines?

Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will happen to poor countries, so who pays for them? In principle, says the new Loss and Damage mechanism, the rich countries that are responsible for the warming pay. But the “mechanism” has no method for assessing the damage or allocating the blame, so it will become a lawyers’ playground of little use to anybody else.

Besides, the rich countries are going to be fully committed financially in just covering the cost of their own damages. Consider, for example, the $60 billion that President Barack Obama has just requested from the US Congress to deal with the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. In practice, there will be very little left to compensate the poor countries for their disasters, even if the rich ones have good intentions.

So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation will never keep up with the speed at which the climate is going bad, and if compensation is a nice idea whose time will never come, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer? Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide?

There will be a fourth stage to the negotiations, but first we will have to wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present lethargy. That probably won’t happen until quite late in the decade – and by then, at the current rate of emissions, we will be well past the point at which we could hold the rise in average global temperature down to two degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

We will, in fact, be on course for 3, 4 or even 5 degrees C of warming, because beyond plus 2 degrees, the warming that we have already created will trigger “feedbacks”: natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions like melting permafrost WHICH WE CANNOT SHUT OFF.

So then, when it’s too late, everybody will really want a deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough any more. We will need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets in. The rule of thumb is that we lose ten percent of global food production for every rise in average global temperature of one degree C.

There probably is a way to stop the warming from passing plus 2 degrees C and triggering the feedbacks, during the decades it will take to get our emissions back down. It’s called “geo-engineering”: direct human intervention in the climate system. Our greenhouse gas emissions are an inadvertent example of geo-engineering that is pushing the climate in the wrong direction. Another, deliberate kind of geo-engineering may be needed to stop it.

Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible, though the undesirable side-effects could be very large. The biggest problem is that it’s relatively cheap: dozens of governments could afford to do it – and just one government, acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.

So the fourth phase of the climate talks, probably starting late this decade, will be about when it is time to start geo-engineering, and what techniques should be used, and who controls the process. They won’t agree on that either, so things will drag on further until some government, desperate to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone, without global agreement. That could cause a major war, of course.

So we had better hope that neutral observers like the fossil fuel industries are right in insisting that global warming is a fraud. Maybe all those scientists really are making it up just to get more money in research grants. That would be a happy ending, so fingers crossed.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Besides…intentions”)

 

The Syrian Civil War

15 November 2012

The Syrian Civil War

By Gwynne Dyer

Syria now has a new government-in-exile that allegedly unites all the groups seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. But if this is the best that they can do, Assad will still be in power next year, and perhaps for a long time afterwards.

It took a week of haggling in Qatar to bring all the fractious Syrian rebel groups together, and it wouldn’t have happened at all without great pressure from the Gulf Arab countries and the United States. Basically, the Syrian rebels were told that if they wanted more money and arms, they had to create a united front.

So they did, kind of, but the fragility and underlying disunity of the new government-in-exile is implicit in its cumbersome name: the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces. It’s really just a loose and probably temporary collaboration between different sectarian and ethnic groups whose ultimate goals are widely divergent.

This new body has already been recognised by the Gulf states as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people,” in the words of Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim. France, Syria’s former colonial ruler, has done the same, and other Western countries may follow suit (although probably not the United States). But it won’t end the war.

It is a real civil war now; the days of the non-violent Syrian democratic movement that tried to emulate the peaceful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are long past. Moreover, it is a civil war whose ultimate outcome is unclear. It is by no means certain that Assad and the Baathist regime he leads will finally be defeated.

The Syrian government has all the heavy weapons, but it does not have enough troops to establish permanent military control over every rural area in a country of 24 million people. However, it does have the strength to smash any attempts to create a rival authority with the powers of a real government in those rural areas, and it still holds most of the cities: the front line in Aleppo has scarcely moved since last summer.

How has Assad managed to hang on so long when other Arab dictators fell so quickly in the early days of the “Arab spring”? Partly it is the fact that he’s not a one-man regime.

The Baath Party which he leads is an organisation with almost half a century’s experience of power, and plenty of patronage to distribute to its allies. It began almost as an Arab Communist party (without the atheism), and although its economics are now neo-liberal, it retains its Communist-style political discipline. Moreover, the Alawites who populate its higher offices know that they have to hang together, or else they will hang separately.

The other thing Assad has going for him is the highly fragmented character of Syrian society. Seventy percent of the population are Sunni Muslims, but the other 30 percent include Shias, Alawites (a Shia heresy), Druze (an even more divergent sect with Islamic roots) and Christians. All of them are nervous about Sunni Muslim domination in a post-Assad Syria, and the presence of various foreign jihadis on the battlefield only deepens their anxiety.

Moreover, the main suppliers of arms and money to the insurgents are Sunni Muslim countries in the Arabian peninsula, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that are not know for being tolerant of non-Sunni minorities. This has persuaded most non-Sunni Syrians that they are under attack – and thirty percent of Syria’s population, with a big, well-equipped army and air force, can probably fight 70 percent of the population with only light weapons to a standstill.

In fact, the Syrian battlefield, after only a year of serious fighting, is already coming to resemble the Lebanese battlefield after the first year of the civil war there. Large tracts of the countryside are under the military control of the religious or ethnic group that makes up the local majority, while the front lines in the big cities have effectively congealed into semi-permanent boundaries.

In Lebanon, the level of fighting dropped a lot after that first year, apart from the period of the Israeli invasion and occupation in 1982-83, but the country continued to be chopped up into local fiefdoms until the Taif accord in 1989 led to the end of the fighting.

There are obviously differences between the Lebanese and Syrian cases, but they are not big enough to justify any confidence that Syria’s future will be different from Lebanon’s past. Assad will continue to have access to arms and money from Iran and Russia, and there will be no large-scale military intervention from outside to tilt the balance decisively one way or the other.

A split in the Baath Party or a military coup could open the way to national reconciliation if it happened relatively soon, but that is not likely. Apart from that, the only thing that might really change all these calculations and break the stalemate is an Israeli attack on Iran and a general Middle Eastern conflagration. That is not a price anybody wants to pay.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“This new…war”; and “Moreover…standstill”)

 

The Arab League

14 November 2011

The Arab League: The Infection Spreads

By Gwynne Dyer

For most of its 66-year history, the Arab League was a powerless organisation, dominated by autocratic regimes that made sure it never criticised their lies and crimes. But suddenly, this year, it woke up and changed sides.

Last March the Arab League suspended Libya’s membership because of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal attempts to suppress the revolution, and voted to back a no-fly zone in Libya. That led directly to the UN resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s army, and ultimately to the tyrant’s overthrow and death.

Last Saturday the Arab League acted again, suspending Syria’s membership. It did so because President Bashar al-Assad has not carried out the commitments he gave the League about ending the violence against Syrian civilians (an estimated 3,500 killed so far), pulling the army off the streets of Syrian cities, releasing the thousands of recently imprisoned protesters, and opening a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks.

On Sunday the Arab League’s secretary-general, Nabil al-Arabi, called for “international protection” for Syrian civilians as the organisation lacked the means to act alone. “There is nothing wrong with going to the UN Security Council because it is the only organisation able to impose” such measures, he added. And he said that during a visit to Tripoli, the newly liberated capital of Libya.

Everybody understood the significance of his saying it there. The Arab League explicitly rejects foreign military intervention in Syria, and NATO would never take on Assad’s regime anyway. But al-Arabi was implicitly saying that what is happening in Syria now is comparable to what was happening in Libya six months ago, and that all measures short of war are justified to stop the slaughter in Syria and remove the dictator’s regime.

Then on Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan finally said aloud what almost every other Arab leader has been thinking: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down.”

It’s particularly striking coming from Abdullah because the two men are not just neighbours. They both came to power in 1999-2000, replacing fathers who had ruled over their respective countries for decades, and they were both originally painted as reformers. True, Bashar al-Assad is not technically a king, but he is equally the product of a dynasty – and here is his closest counterpart in the Arab world publicly giving up on him.

King Abdullah added that on his way out, Bashar should also “create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.” Decoded, that means that Syria’s problems cannot be ending just by changing horses. The whole Baathist regime, and the near monopoly of power by the Alawite minority that underpins it, have to go too.

This is astonishing stuff. One year ago, nobody would have believed it possible that eighteen of the twenty-two members of the Arab League would vote, in effect, for the peaceful removal of the oppressive Syrian regime, or that the Jordanian king would dare to be so frank about his neighbour’s problems and options. What has wrought this miracle?

It would be nice to say that the rapid and largely non-violent spread of democracy in the Arab world has brought enlightenment even to the most deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes, but it would not be true. Only three of the 22 Arab League members (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) have actually had democratic revolutions, and their example has not transformed the attitudes of all the other members. What drives this response is mostly fear.

The Arab League said nothing when Bashar al-Assad’s father slaughtered up to 40,000 Syrians while putting down a revolt in the city of Hama in 1982, but his son’s brutality is simply unacceptable today. Arab leaders can no longer ignore the mass killing of Arab citizens. Some of them would like to, but uncensored Arabic-language mass media, broadcasting directly from satellites, have made it impossible. Everybody knows what’s going on.

Moreover, none of the other big countries of the Arab east – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon – are very far from Syria. The longer the struggle there goes on, the likelier it is to topple over into sectarian war and ethnic cleansing. The neighbours are rightly terrified that the sectarian violence might then spill over into their own countries as well, so the sooner Bashar al-Assad leaves office, the better.

And finally, there is the remarkable role being played by Qatar, the mouse that roared. It is one of the smallest Arab states, but its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has been both brave and far-sighted. It was he who gave al-Jazeera television, the first and best of the new satellite-based news operations, a terrestrial home, and even substantial subsidies.

It was Qatar that took the lead in persuading the Arab League to suspend Gaddafi’s regime last March, and then actually sent planes and military advisers to assist the pro-democracy revolt in Libya. And it is Qatar again, in the form of Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassim Al Thani, chair of the League’s committee for dealing with Syrian problems, that pushed the League into suspending Syria last week.

Whether that will actually produce the desired result in Syria remains to be seen. But at least they are trying.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Everybody…regime”; and “It’s…him”)